If awards season gets up your nose, with its self-congratulatory speeches and luvvie back-patting, this playful and wildly entertaining Spanish satire on the filmmaking process is the perfect antidote. Self-administer a dose of its needy thesps, insecure stars, high-art auteurs and vain money men, and you’re ready for any number of speeches about the unique alchemy of the creative process.
Here, the creative process is less alchemy than anarchy. An ageing pharma CEO wants to leave a lasting legacy and reckons that a hit movie with artistic weight will do the job for him – though a shiny new bridge will probably do, at a push. Enter Penélope Cruz’s gail-force auteur, Lola Cuevas. She has a worthy tome to adapt – the story of two warring brothers who fell out over a car accident – and some leftfield ideas for adapting it. ‘Will there be something of the book left?’ meekly offers the money man. ‘I paid a fortune for it.’
If a few real-life film financiers might wince at that, wait until the two actors arrive for the rehearsal process that makes the bulk of the film. Antonio Banderas’s international star, Félix Rivero, rocks up with a blonde in a sports car and has millions of followers on his Insta, while theatre star Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) is all studied craft and pompous authenticity. One has money and status; the other has acting students hanging off his every word.
Each, as Cuevas senses and tries to exploit, wants a little of what the other has. But they would rather lose a Goya Award than admit it. Gradually, through ego, vanity and a juvenile sense of male rivalry, they are at each other’s throats. Official Competition charts how difficult those forces are to control once set in motion.
Co-directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn (The Distinguished Citizen) use the syncopated rhythms of the rehearsal process to create deliciously silly comic scenarios to send all three up. Cruz’s uber-auteur has the two actors Sellotaped tapped together to learn to tap into the single essence of the siblings, and rehearsing a scene directly beneath a dangling boulder at the end of a creaking crane.
There’s a hint of David Mamet in Official Competition’s takedown of the creative process, though it’s always affectionate rather than biting. Its absurdist streak owes more to Buñuel, the past master of taking a cinematic pin to overinflated egos.
All three lead actors are a joy. Banderas and Martínez play their catty thesps dead straight to generally hilarious effect, while Cruz cuts loose as a fiery artiste prone to dancing the floss in moments of stress.
Initially, her two leads are all darting eyes as they fret over what they’re being asked to do – and whether their rival is likely to do it better – but gradually they begin striking back with ploys of their own. Obviously, they go awry too. After all, this is the kind of competition that tends not to produce any winners.
Official Secrets premiered at the Venice Film Festival. In UK cinemas later this year.