By Simon Miraudo
August 1, 2014
The Congress is where brutal reality meets impossible fantasy, Tex Avery meets Studio Ghibli, and director Ari Folman meets actress Robin Wright, resulting in, at the very least, a truly unique cinematic experience, and inspiring one genius headline. (See above.)
Set in a near-future Hollywood that has no further need for actors, Wright plays a version of herself, compelled by her long-suffering agent (Harvey Keitel) and the brutish “Miramount” studio head (Danny Huston) to sign over her likeness, abandon acting, and let them do with her data as they please. Having earned a reputation for being “flaky” – when really she’s just been caring for her ailing son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in their home, a fitted-out former airplane hangar – she’s told her best years are behind her, and it’d be smarter to leave “Robin Wright”, the brand, to the professionals. When the film jumps forward twenty years, CGI “Robin Wright” is the biggest star in the world, and that’s not nearly the most shocking thing about this new dystopian age.
Based loosely on Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, Folman’s adaptation traffics in big ideas; some of them scarily probable, others not particularly insightful, and a fair few totally incomprehensible. (As my partner pointed out, if you’re still explaining the rules of the universe five minutes before the credits roll, something’s gone terribly wrong in the screenwriting process.) Folman’s follow-up to his Oscar winning documentary Waltz with Bashir isn’t quite as singularly successful as that movie, in which he animated the nightmares and suppressed memories of Israeli soldiers who served during the Lebanon War. We see his distinctive animation style resuscitated in the second act, in which an aged Wright attends ‘The Congress’: an animated phantasmagoria wherein the elite can actually ingest their favourite stars through drink and present themselves to the world as that celebrity. The biggest irony here: Jon Hamm voices Wright’s companion through this fantastical realm, and yet, he didn’t choose to look like Jon Hamm.
It’s hard to know where Wright’s involvement in the creative process for The Congress begins and ends, though her devotion alone deserves applause. Her history informs the entire feature, and often it feels hugely invasive because of it. She endures a series of monologues from countless characters, each crucifying her for real life actions, making note of her age and how the industry has left her behind. (Sidebar: Wright indeed suffered a number of big screen flops in the decade preceding The Congress, however, she’s since enjoyed a revival thanks to her Golden Globe-winning, Emmy-nominated turn in House of Cards. Nonetheless, swap her out for any number of forty-something actresses, and the tragic point remains.)
As a satire of celebrity culture, and the way in which we choose to escape into it to shield ourselves from “the truth”, The Congress, sadly, gets too tangled up in metaphysics to make a salient point. As a commentary on Wright’s career, it’s fascinatingly frank. The standout scene involves a technician charged with motion-capturing Wright’s final “performance” prodding her to express exuberance, first, and then utter devastation at the remains of her existence, without Wright uttering a word (the poor woman dressed only in an unflattering body sock). There’s much gobbledegook in The Congress, but also some bewilderingly beautiful animation. Most significantly, The Congress gives Wright, a star who needs no special flourishes to astound, an impressive showcase, and that’s it’s true gift.
The Congress played the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. It arrives in Australian cinemas December 4, 2014.