In Official Competition, film can only be made if commerce and art crash into each other. At the start of this new Spanish movie by directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, an 80-year-old business mogul experiences an existential crisis. Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) stares out of a skyscraper window and begins to doubt the importance of his financial achievements. Is his portfolio of mergers and acquisitions the only legacy he’ll leave behind? And so he decides to finance a film, to secure a certain amount of acclaim before he leaves this mortal coil.
Official Competition gradually develops into something more than an inside view of the pre-production process when Suárez hires Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), an award-winning, avant-garde filmmaker, to turn a Nobel prize-winning novel into his film. Cuevas is a natural raconteur—like a Spanish Scheherazade. As she describes the story of two brothers that will form the film’s center, the clarity of her artistic vision mesmerizes Suárez. Without concluding her story, Official Competition then segues into a behind-the-scenes look at Cuevas’ rehearsal process with her two stars—she has transformed her tale into reality.
Although their movie features at least three actors who’ve worked within Pedro Almodóvar’s tragicomedies and melodramas, the mood Cohn and Duprat establish is closer to Alex Garland’s claustrophobic Ex Machina (2014). Cuevas’ rehearsals with Félix (Antonio Banderas) and Iván (Oscar Martínez) take place inside an ultra-modern building that’s isolated from the outside world. We get no glimpses of city streets, crowds or gatherings, shops or restaurant—nothing beyond a cement courtyard.
The film clearly distinguishes Félix from Iván. The costume designer, Wanda Morales, clothes Félix in luxe, sleek, brightly colored fabrics. One of the coats he wears shimmers like molten rubies. Iván is dressed like an Ivy League professor from the 1970s. His earth-toned outfits are a somber set of grays, greens and browns. Primarily a theater actor, the pretentious Iván represents a high-minded ideal of art for art’s sake. Félix is an international movie star and a box office draw. On the first day of rehearsal, he drives up in a hot red sports car with a much younger girlfriend at the wheel.
Cuevas deliberately casts these men in her film because of their competing personas and styles of acting. She wants to extract the palpable tension between them as they move through the scripts. As Cuevas corrects their line readings and messes with their minds, the friction and contempt they feel for each other in real life starts to creep into their performances. Even before the cameras start to roll, the actors are bound for a dramatic confrontation.