As the Fall Film Festival season spills over into the Year-End Listmaking frenzy and the new year’s hangover Awards Ceremonies, it’s easy to be tricked into believing that movies are Important. Forget all the jump-scare horrors of October and the action blockbuster bloat of what’s now a six-month summer. This is the time of year when cinema cures all the world’s ills, from “solving” racial & economic injustice in 180 minutes or less to fortifying millionaire actors’ praise-starved egos with gold-plated statuettes. And so, it’s the perfect time of year to catch up with the Spanish film industry satire Official Competition, which is exactly as cynical about the absurd ritual of Important Cinema Season as the ritual deserves. Dissatisfied with merely being grotesquely wealthy, a pharmaceutical CEO decides to purchase cultural clout by funding a high-brow art film. He employs a temperamental arthouse auteur to complete the task in his name (Penelope Cruz, sporting one of cinema’s all-time greatest wigs). To make the most of the opportunity, she has to manage the competing egos of her two male stars (Oscar Martinez as a pretentious stage actor & Antonio Banderas as a himbo film star), and the three mismatched artists violently bicker their way into purchasing a Palme d’Or. Hilarity ensues, with none of the pomp nor dignity of Prestige Filmmaking left intact.
As you can likely tell from the dual presence of Cruz & Banderas, Official Competition borrows a lot of aesthetic surface details from the Almodóvar playbook: ultra-modernist art gallery spaces, video-instillation digi projections, cut-and-paste magazine collages, etc. It just repurposes those Great Value™ Almodóvar aesthetics for broad goofball schtick instead of subtly complex melodrama. And it works! The jokes are constant & consistently funny, always punching up at the absurd self-importance of artsy filmmaker types’ delusion that they can change the world through a millionaire producer’s vanity project. From the himbo’s Instagram charity sponcon to the theatre snob’s practiced awards rejection speech to the auteur’s failure to master TikTok dance crazes, the movie constantly pokes fun at its three central players for being far less Genius, Important, and Uniquely Talented than they believe themselves to be. At its core, this is a comedy about a boyish rivalry between the two actors under Cruz’s direction, and her mistaken belief that she’s the sole voice of reason on-set. They’re all equally ridiculous and all a constant source of verbal & visual punchlines.
Even though Official Competition is essentially a farce, it can’t help but absorb some of its own arthouse prestige through proximity. The three main actors all put in great, nuanced performances as broad film-world archetypes, especially Cruz as the exasperated auteur who can’t fully domesticate her collaborators. The Almodóvar set details afford it a crisp art instillation feel, especially in a lengthy gag involving a loudly mic’d lesbian makeout session. Its icy humor at the expense of its own industry also goes subzero in the third act, when the vicious on-set rivalries become outright lethal. It’s a very smart comedy about a very silly industry that thinks very highly of itself, an easy but worthwhile target for ridicule. It’s around this stretch on the annual film distribution calendar—when the novelty horror titles dry up between Halloween & January dumping season—that I’m desperate for a little novelty & levity in my moviewatching diet. Official Competition meets me halfway in that respect, finding plenty novelty & levity in Prestige Filmmaking itself.