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Official Competition review – art movie satire perfectly balances silliness and sincerity

Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat mix big laughs with formal ambition for a comedy that loves and mocks its subjects equally

One of the first things you notice about Official Competition is just how contained it is. Here is a film in which you barely see the outside world or its inhabitants, keeping almost all its action within the grounds of a palatial arts space. It’s a fun and fitting technique for a film about the filmmaking process, an insular, inaccessible, and often undeniably ridiculous activity that Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat’s movie delights in taking incisive – but ultimately warmhearted – potshots at.

It’s hardly a revolutionary act for a film to make fun of itself – this is an industry that’s been self-satirising for almost as long as it’s existed – but Cohn and Duprat’s solution to this possible staleness is an unimpeachable one; get simply sublime comic performances from Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas. Cruz, wielding the best hair in any film this year, is Lola Cuevas, an eccentric but world-renowned and festival favourite director, hired by an aging multi-millionaire pharmaceutical CEO to helm a project that will add prestige to his name after he dies, adapting a hefty tome of a novel called Rivalry about two warring brothers.

In the lead is Banderas’s Felix Rivero, an international superstar modelled in part on Banderas himself, while the other brother is to be played by older and more serious theatre actor Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez). Felix is all charisma and minimal preparation, the polar opposite to the more subdued and psychology-driven Ivan, and it’s this inherent conflict that Lola hopes to harness for her film across nine intense rehearsal days. We follow this rehearsal process as it takes its toll on the entire trio, Cohn and Duprat skilfully building the shifting relationships between the three and finding big laughs in their wildly differing individual processes.

Though Cruz and Martinez are both tremendous, the lion’s share of these laughs go to Banderas. It’s another triumph from the actor after his career-high in 2019’s Pain and Glory, again taking on the film world in a meta way, but this time trading in the heartrending sincerity of Almodovar’s film for brilliant comedy, able to ground the cartoonishness of the absolute broadest scenes in a way the other two can’t quite manage. As a successful moron, Felix is simultaneously arrogant and easily led, Banderas doing a magnificent job of showing his confusion at the more “artistic” techniques of Lola and Ivan, laugh-out-loud funny even when he’s just in the background of a conversation.

Even when Official Competition is lighter on laughs, it’s kept compelling by Cohn and Duprat’s formal ambition. It’s very rare to see a comedy that looks and sounds as good as this one does, beautifully composed frames full of colour and interesting geometry that you feel yourself getting lost in. With all the time spent in the ultra-modernist rehearsal space, you get to know all its nooks and crannies pretty well, but that never takes away from how striking it is as a location, its beauty captured perfectly by DOP Arnaud Valls Colomer.

It’s in this stylistic prowess as much as anything in the script that Official Competition proves that it, deep down, does really love movies, as nonsensical and silly as it might find the people behind them. Balancing this with the big laughs a film like this needs to survive is a tough challenge, but one that Cohn and Duprat rise to, rarely taking an overly easy or obvious route and bolstered by an iconic cast on top form.

Official Competition is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 29 August.

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