The Congress

Robin Wright had it all; a movie queen at twenty four through her role as Buttercup in The Princess Bride, now her long suffering agent Al (Harvey Keitel) must be cruel to be kind, listing all the times she has squandered her chances by walking out of roles, a series of bad choices through the last two decades even before her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), suffering from a degeneration of vision and hearing, became her excuse, but it is something Robin needs to hear.

She lives with Aaron and daughter Sarah in a converted hangar near the airport; Sarah asks why she refuses roles in science fiction, Aaron flies his kites and attends his appointments with the kindly Doctor Barker (Paul Giamatti) who confirms that his conditioning is worsening.

Persuaded by Al to meet with Miramount studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston) at his offices, he similarly recounts to Robin how she has “clogged up productions and cost us millions” but says he is still willing to offer her “the last contract that you’ll ever have.”

With the movie industry in flux, the old structure of actors and agents and studio lot productions is a thing of the past: Robin will be scanned, a digital recreation which will be wholly owned by Miramount, the original forbidden ever from acting again in film, television, theatre, even a high school play. With no say over how her avatar will be used, Robin is resistant, but finally agrees to be scanned with Al guiding her through the process, coaxing her through what will be her final performance.

Deeply abstract, the latest film from Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman is very much to be felt, experienced on an emotional level rather than intellectually analysed for logic and meaning, but it is direct in its opinions on Hollywood and how actors are treated, Jeff referring to the modern cinema as allowing “the terrible legitimisation of dreadful scripts” while elsewhere it is pointed out that “crappy romantic comedies have existed since the 1940s.” Robin may request a clause for no science fiction, a genre she regards as dumb, but Jeff knows this is where the money is made and that her contract will be worth six times as much if she concedes.

And it is in science fiction where the virtual Robin’s future lies; twenty years on, Rebel Robot Robin is her most famous role as she is invited to the Futurological Congress to negotiate changes to her contract that will allow her likeness to be used as a template which can be purchased by users as an animated avatar. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs which have allowed her to attend the Congress, Robin has become distraught and denounces the process, but the gathering is attacked by dissidents and the already fantastical reality around her begins to unravel further.

Loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, the film is pensive, meditative, obtuse, mesmerising and deeply sad, a world as broken as the hearts of the few survivors and while overlong it remains oddly involving throughout, largely due to Robin Wright’s troubled interpretation of herself, as fortunately in truth her career has never suffered as her fictional counterpart.

While superficially the idea may seem to parallel Andrew Niccol’s science fiction comedy S1m0ne, a tale of troublesome Hollywood talent supplanted by new technology, it is actually Niccol’s previous film Gattaca which is brought to mind, both in the resemblance of Max Richter’s score to the work of Michael Nyman and in that any sense of triumph or release must be balanced against the huge cost which has already been paid.

The opening section set in the real world is but a prelude and it is when the Congress is revealed that the film comes alive, a riot of different animation styles, a constant stream of images conjuring a dozen worlds and realities and regimes, Disney on drugs, a Yellow Submarine parked in the gardens before Miramount Hotel, Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, landscapes from Fantasia‘s Pastoral Symphony, the rolling fields and living forests of Miyazaki, character design dating to the days of Steamboat Willie as a parade of avatars of Grace Jones, David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, the Mad Hatter, Tom Cruise, Frida Kahlo and Jesus are set against aspects of Doctor Strangelove, Brazil and Blade Runner to a ghostly dreampop soundtrack.

The Congress is now on general release




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