‘Official Competition’ review: Penelope Cruz failed by aimless arthouse satire

There is much to mock in the film industry. Actors are vain, the moneymen do not care about the art, and the whole process is well removed from the real world it ostensibly is trying to depict. With so much to poke fun at, it is a shame that Official Competition does not choose its targets better.

The Spanish-Argentinian film brings Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas together in the same frame for the first time, after the stars appeared separately in I’m So Excited and Pain and Glory.

Those two films were directed by Pedro Almodovar, and watching Official Competition you cannot help but wish that the Spanish master was directing this film – his recent tell-all diaries from the festival and awards circuit suggests he would have a lot more to say about the vanities of the film industry than this movies does.

In the film, a wealthy industrialist (José Luis Gómez) turns 80 and wants to finance a film to cement his legacy. This film is an adaptation of a Nobel Prize-winning author whose book he has not read but whose rights he says cost him a fortune. Its stars will be Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), a well-respected serious actor, and Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a Hollywood star. Directing it, meanwhile, is Lola Cuevas (Cruz), a critically-acclaimed filmmaker with some unconventional rehearsal methods.

These methods provide most of Official Competition’s best moments. Lola tries to make her actors bring more fear to their performances by having them act with what they think is a five-ton boulder over their heads. She makes them kiss the film’s love interest (Irene Escolar), who is also the industrialist’s daughter, in front of a bank of microphones to record every slurpy detail. In the film’s central scene, she makes the actors bring in their awards, only to put them through an industrial shredder.

It is Cruz’s character, however, that is the film’s central problem. This is no fault of the actress, who seems to be having fun parodying the pretensions of directors she has worked with in the past while wearing berserk outfits and a Natasha Lyonne wig. 

There remains the stench of sexism about the character however. The actors baulk at her exercises, telling her that none of their formerly (presumably almost exclusively male) directors have made them do such things. This already is dangerously close to a “bitches be crazy” message even before we get to scenes that paint her as an over-emotional nymphomaniac who seduces the film’s female lead.

Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Edgar Martinez in ‘Official Competition’

Portraying the female director in this way is a missed opportunity, as there is something interesting in these two males actors dismissing a female’s authority and creative methods. Rather than making that more nuanced point, though, the film goes for the easier route of making everyone a buffoon. The Hollywood star is pompous and pampered, the respected actor pretentious and preachy, the director precious and preposterous. 

The film industry is so ridiculous and bloated in so many ways that a broad satire of it can be entertaining as this film often is. This would be fine, but then the movie tries to hint at something deeper, drawing our attention to the normal people affected by this clash of egos, like a cleaning woman who has to clean up the shards of shredded awards. Moments like that and the nepotism of the industrialist suggest a more nuanced satire hidden in the centre of this film that is hidden behind cheaper jokes.

The creative team at the heart of this film’s plot may be hugely flawed, and may represent a flawed industry. But at least they are trying to create art, something this film could try once in a while.

Published by Samuel Spencer

Journalist at BBC Three. Deputy Culture Editor at Newsweek. Formerly at Express.co.uk, Press Association, ARTINFO. Lover of film, TV and the actresses it they give work to. Contact me samuelspencerwrites@gmail.com.

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