‘Official Competition’: The Road to Cannes Is Deliciously Wicked in Absurdly Hilarious Artouse Satire

The process of making an awards-bait film is satirized in the darkly funny Spanish film “Official Competition.” Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas star as two of the major players in a group that sets out to make a movie that they hoped to be a career-high for all involved, but the project almost goes off the rails before it even starts, thanks to a pre-production process that turns out to be a series psychological mind games for its two leads.

“Rivalry” starts with Humberto Suàrez (José Luis Gómez), a pharmaceutical billionaire who decides he must produce a film in order to lead behind a lasting legacy. He decides upon an adaptation of a Nobel-winning novel, “Rivalry,” despite never having read it. He hires Lola Cuevas (Cruz), an eccentric director who makes brilliant indies sporadically, to steer the ship, and she selects two very different actors to play the leads. Banderas plays movie star Félix Rivero, while Oscar Martínez is Iván Torres, a more prestigious but less commercially successful actor. Predictably, they clash, and each one is intimidated by the other. But the real humor comes from the madness in Lola’s method, as she subjects the men to nine days of intense rehearsal at her spacious and sterile home. 

While it is undecided if Lola’s style makes the men better actors, the whole environment amplifies their insecurities and leads to mind games, including a major fib Félix tells halfway through. While Lola and Iván are too easily fooled, the viewer is naturally skeptical, as directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrés Duprat, do an excellent job of creating a world where we question just about everything. Lola is smart enough to recognize that a rivalry between Félix and Iván is a good thing, as they are playing brothers with a complicated past – one brother killed their parents in a drunk driving accident, and they eventually end up in a love triangle with the same woman.

The only thing messier than the lives of the brothers in the movie is perhaps the real-life relationship between Félix and Iván. They repeatedly torment each other under the guise of acting exercises, with Lola pulling their strings like an evil genius. But some of the funnier scenes take place when they are separated, and all three of the leads commit to their roles. Banderas, for his part, seems to be playing a heightened version of himself. Félix has homes in Spain and Los Angeles, five children with four different women, and legions of fans, including Iván’s niece. Pilar Castro earns our sympathies as Violeta, pompous Iván’s presumably long-suffering wife, a children’s book author, who has to listen to him go on a rant after she suggests asking Félix to make a video birthday greeting for the teen niece. But Martínez tops himself later in a scene in which he says he’s glad he wasn’t offered the same high pay as Félix, as it would have been unethical, even pornographic, to accept it. 

But the true star here is Cruz, as Lola has bigger dick energy than both of the men combined. We see Cruz’s brilliance throughout, even in the more reflective scenes, such as when she has an attractive young woman in her underwear dance for her while she lounges in bed. Later, she has both actors kiss the actress playing their mutual love interest, Diana (Irene Escolar), who also happens to be Humberto’s daughter. Lola decides to show them how it is done, and you can guess what happens next. The filmmaker’s unusual methods also include making her actors rehearse under what appears to be a large rock suspended over their heads, and destroying their Golden Globes and other awards before their eyes.

“Official Competition” begs the question, is great art worth the mental anguish, lawsuits, and bodily harm that we inflicted here? By the end, it depends on whom one asks. The whole journey ends at an expected place, Cannes, and one thing is certain, and that is that viewers will never look at arthouse films the same way again.

Official Competition” releases June 17 in select theaters.