As soon as the Cannes Film Festival ends, a caustic fiction on the star system arrives in theaters, the aptly named Official Competition, by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat. From film to film – The Man Next Door (2009), The Artist (2011), Honorary Citizen (2016) – the Argentinian duo explores the world of art, design or the hushed universe literature, in a burlesque and satirical vein. But we will never find in their films the deadly venom of The Square (2017), by Ruben Östlund, a chilling portrait of a museum curator, which earned a first Palme d’Or for the Swedish filmmaker, who has just get a second, with Triangle of Sadness, on May 28, at the end of the 75th edition in Cannes.

Argentinian filmmakers are happily working on the mise en abyme: in their film, selected in competition at Venice in 2021, the statuettes that make filmmakers’ heads turn have a hard time. The directors denounce the vanity of the prices, the internal quarrels of the cinema (the films of author versus the entertainment), and the shortcomings of a profession which believes itself to be allowed everything.

One might fear the populist charge if the cast of the film did not precisely bring together three international actors, themselves laden with awards, accepting, so to speak, to put themselves in the hot seat – all the more willingly since the directors are not too mean to the system, of which they are a part. So here are gathered, to cut a suit for the stars, the Spaniards Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and the Argentinian Oscar Martinez – winner of the Volpi cup for male interpretation in Venice, in 2016, for his role in Citizen of honor, in which he embodies a Nobel Prize.

Big challenge

Penélope Cruz embodies Lola Cuevas, a fashionable director, who has already won a Silver Lion and a Palme d’Or. Thanks to an old boss of the pharmaceutical industry, seized with a sudden desire to produce a film, the filmmaker will be able to bring together on the same poster two great actors who have never played together. A tall order, because they are very different: Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), handsome, middle-aged, self-confident, star of mainstream, action movies; Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez), an aging theater actor, very identified on the contemporary scene, belongs to a cultivated elite. In the script, Felix and Ivan embody two enemy brothers, who cannot see each other in medals, a thinly veiled metaphor for the incommunicability that reigns between the two actors.

Argentinian directors do not claim to deliver a documented critique of the cinema world. In Official Competition, the filming atmosphere is not quite believable, the authors work on offbeat, slightly excessive situations to trigger laughter, while concentrating very seriously on the object of their study: the actors, their relationship to fame, the fear of disappearing, the irresistible urge to pull the blanket to oneself, etc. Over the course of a succession of sketches, a filmmaker and two actors go into a spin: the tension rises, to the brink of explosion, before no less diabolical exits from the crisis begin.

Unorthodox methods

Antonio Banderas humorously plays a caricature of himself, a handsome man with an efficient game, capable of going upmarket in anger, pathos, at the simple request of the director (hilarious sequence), as if all he had to do was turn on the engine of his car (sports, of course). Oscar Martinez is equally convincing in his delivery of the deceptively modest and pathetic nerd. Finally, Penélope Cruz leaves her Madonna smiles for a more sulphurous look, embodying a woman who is both flirtatious and tyrannical. A profile of “narcissistic perverse”, as we would say in French cinema.

All of these characters have one thing in common: their egos. Including the old boss, producer of the film, who knows nothing about cinema, but wants to leave his mark there, if only by signing a check. The filmmaker is convinced that her unique direction of actors, with unorthodox, even awkward methods, will bring the two established stars out of their comfort zone; as for the actors, they stare at each other and observe each other, each convinced of being the best. It is by digging this furrow of competition, of the feeling of superiority, that the directors distill their humor and imagine the funniest scenes. But the paintings of Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat are grittier than it seems. In the background of a rehearsal scene, or a cocktail party for the film crew, always appears, in the frame, the small army of invisible people who clean the set, serve the glasses or pick up the broken glasses.