Two New Comedies: One Touching the Absurd and a Second Just Touching

At the Movies

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From left: Anthony Banderas (as Felix), Penelope Cruz (as Lola), and Oscar Martinez (as Iván) contemplating a rock in “Official Competition.” Photo courtesy of The Mediapro Studio

Official Competition

An aged pharma multimillionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gomez), celebrating his 80th birthday, is musing on his legacy and rejects the idea of commissioning some kind of routine monument or totem.  Instead, he wishes to leave a different kind of mark by financing a major motion picture deemed a work of art. To this end, he looks to hire the best known film director in the business, the eccentric Lola Cuevas (Penelope Lopez) (the film, now in theaters, runs 115 minutes and is rated “R”).

The screenplay for Suárez’s film is to be adapted from an award-winning novel about a man who is unable to forgive his brother for killing their parents in a drunk-driving accident. The two brothers are to be played by the renowned stage actor and drama teacher Iván Torres (Oscar Martinez) and the popular celebrity and movie star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), whose varied sensibilities and methods cause them to immediately clash during Cuevas’ lengthy rehearsal period.

Official Competition is essentially made up of what is a very eccentric rehearsal (in fact, we never see any shooting of the final film itself). Cuevas has her own idiosyncratic ways of working, starting with a massive notebook which is a bursting collage of notes and images.  Her aim is to elicit actor’s reactions and assess their skills, starting right off the bat with a lengthy (and arbitrary) critique of Torres’s delivery of the phrase  “Good Morning” on the first reading of the script. 

She also aims to “increase tension” for the duo by having them rehearse under a giant boulder hanging by a rope, then has the two actors throw insults at each other to test their level of ego.  And on it goes.

“Official Competition” was directed by Argentine filmmakers Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn,  from a screenplay by Duprat, Cohn, and Andrés Duprat. The duo of Duprat and Cohn have made ten films together, most of them never seen in the US.  This may be—with its famous Spanish leads and its enthralling plot—their chance for a breakthrough to the North American independent market.  Too quirky to be a blockbuster, it mingles both dead-pan comedy with off-beat intellect to intrigue the intellectual filmgoer. And the co-directors get wry performances out of their three leads.

Lopez continues to amaze with her range, especially coming off her most recent performance as a bright Spanish activist in “Parallel Mothers,” released just a few months ago. With her tough charm and a mane of hair, she keeps you guessing about her next move, keeping you on edge as she does her two actors. 

Worthy of mention, too, is the setting of Official Competition—the Teatro Auditorio of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a super-modern building in the complex of the Escorial castle outside of Madrid, it offers a futuristic space for its protagonists to glide around in.   

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Five years ago, the acclaimed British actress Leslie Manville played a memorable role as Cyril in Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama “Phantom Thread (2017),” a film starring Daniel Day Lewis as a consummate dressmaker. Manville’s Cyril was nominated for an Oscar as a chilly perfectionist, a detail queen who kept Lewis’s business together.  In this film we once again have the versatile Manville in the haute couture context of the 1950’s, now as a commonplace woman desirous of a truly fancy gown. (The film, now in wide release, runs 115 mins with a “PG” rating). 

From left: Alba Baptista as Natasha and Lesley Manville as Mrs. Harris in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, “ a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / 2021 Ada Films Ltd.

It’s 1957, and Mrs. Ada Harris (Manville), a non-descript cleaning woman and widow in an unfashionable flat in London’s Battersea district, falls in love with a Christian Dior gown she sees in the closet of one of her clients, the obnoxious Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) who neglects to pay her wages. The dress ignites in her a desire to own such a treasure for herself—trouble is, it will cost 500 pounds! She sets out to raise the money to go personally to the House of Dior in Paris to purchase such a dress, counting up her shillings to make the trip. The amount is daunting, until she has a trifecta of good luck in one day—surprise dog racing winnings, a cash reward for returning a lost ring, and the back pay from her husband’s military salary.   

She arrives in Paris knowing no one, but finds her way to the House of Dior where  she is brushed off by the firm’s condescending and chilly director, Ms. Colbert (Isabelle Huppert).  Still, she, with offhand honesty and British wit, becomes adored by all the employees of the house because she has come to pay for her dress in cash!  She also happens to be at the house when a lineup of new Dior frocks are being shown and falls hard for a red satin formal number. 

Since the gown has to be made by hand over two weeks, she must find a place to stay in the city, which she does at the home of the sympathetic Mr. Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), a clever Dior staffer. She is also befriended by one of Dior’s young models, Natasha (Alba Baptista), who looks out for her.  Soon she has inveigled herself into Parisian society with the help of a suave and amiable widower, the Marquise de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), who introduces her to Parisian night life, both classy and bawdy. 

Wildly unlikely, unabashedly sentimental and packed with whimsy, “Mrs. Harris” succeeds mainly because of Manville’s down-to-earth, earnest performance.  You root for her from the first minute. This film confection could be called the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy, something we could all use in our turbulent times.   

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of the book “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com  

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