Natural selection on stage in “Official Competition”

It’s well known: film people like to see themselves in the cinema. Their obsessions, their torments and their slumps suddenly become magnified, or ridiculed, under the gaze of colleagues who know what it costs to pursue one’s passion. Even if, as in politics, they walk painfully on “an ocean of toes”, according to Jacques Parizeau.

In Official competitionby Argentinian filmmakers Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, who are not at their first squeaky comedy as a duo (honorary citizen), the ocean here takes the form of a building whose vocation seems to oscillate between a bustling congress center and a museum of contemporary art stripped of its collections. This space planted somewhere in the Spanish countryside, which one might think was designed by Frank Gehry or Le Corbusier, belongs to the billionaire Humberto Suarez (José Luis Gomez), at the head of a powerful pharmaceutical company. In the evening of his life, he is preoccupied: what will he leave to posterity? He first thinks of a bridge… then of a film!

The vain character, who holds the rights obtained at great expense to a novel by a Nobel-winning writer that he has not had time to read, entrusts the production of his film to Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, flamboyant and outrageous) , a filmmaker crowned with the Palme d’Or, a demanding and tormented artist who can only promise her an adaptation vaguely inspired by this story of enemy brothers. To embody them, who better than two actors from the antipodes: Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, full of self-mockery), planetary star and Latino on duty in Hollywood, and Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez, suave of contempt), lover of the boards, asceticism and a certain anonymity. Their arrival, the first in a Lamborghini and the second in a taxi, already indicates the gap, what can I say, the canyon which separates them, accentuated by their methods, whether expeditious or meticulous, in phase with their reputation.

These antagonisms will of course feed the creative fever of Lola for several days of rehearsals, in itself a luxury, here a pretext to prune the artifices of the shooting to concentrate on this neurotic dynamic sometimes punctuated by the interventions of the assistants, involuntary spectators of this ball egos. In a succession of sometimes grotesque, sometimes dangerous scenarios, each member of this trio reveals both their vulnerability and their contempt, pushing each one to compete in audacity to prove their worth. Even if it means lying about his personal life, or shedding crocodile tears.

All this masquerade, which most often takes place in vast bare spaces, is spiced up with the usual myths surrounding people in this milieu (unjustified delays, whims of all kinds, nasty things about the artistic choices of others, etc.) and is delivered most often with minimalism, between fixed camera, wide shots and stripped soundtrack. These biases also give a singular tone to this preparatory work, closer to psychological drama than satire, without the tinsel that made the charm of The American nightby Francois Truffaut, Living in Oblivionby Tom Dicillo, or even Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by Quentin Tarantino.

Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, with the complicity of screenwriter Andrés Duprat, approach cinema as a theater of the absurd, a collective therapy where the primary instincts of the protagonists end up prevailing over their ideals, including that of glory. They also delight in ridiculing the more commercial aspects of the seventh art, including the idea, still widespread, that the sum of the greatest talents, regardless of their price, can only give the greatest films.

The late Michel Serrault said he was wary of “the masterpiece atmosphere” of these film sets where everyone already sees themselves in Cannes or at the Oscars. He would have laughed in front of Official competition.

Official competition

★★★ 1/2

Dramatic comedy by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat. With Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martinez, José Luis Gomez. Spain-Argentina, 2021, 114 min.

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Natural selection on stage in “Official Competition”