“How do I know if I’m dreaming?” asks actress Robin Wright, played, somewhat surprisingly, by actress Robin Wright, in a moment towards the denouement of this part live action, part animated film examining the meaning of existence and the potentiality of a digital future.
Sadly, by this point, you may not care if the House Of Cards star is dreaming or not as any semblance of reality and cohesive story-telling have been abandoned in this brave, challenging but ultimately problematic piece of work from the man behind the notable Waltz With Bashir (2008), Ari Folman.
The Congress begins with Wright facing the fact that the studios don’t want to work with her; her character here is notoriously difficult and forges her own way in the ‘biz, making her own choices. She is offered, by the studio Miramount (do you see what they did there?), a life line – they want to scan her body and use the digital information to reproduce her “forever young” in any films they choose. Technology is such that they can perfectly recreate Robin Wright in any film – specifically, films which she would choose not to do, being a “difficult” actress (science-fiction being one of them). Upon signing, the contract also states that she can never act again. Anywhere. Anytime.
In essence, this is not dissimilar to an aspect of another Hollywood dissection, Robert Altman’s sublime The Player. In one scene in that 1992 classic, studio exec Larry Levy suggests that writers can be dispensed with in the movie industry, simply relying on what they find in newspapers. Here, in Folman’s vision, actors and actresses are controllable in an unimaginably immoral and exploitative fashion.
This notion that actors can sign their likeness away isn’t exactly cutting edge. Television adverts have been dining off the dead for some time now (see Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe in beer ads and, most recently, Audrey Hepburn in a chocolate bar commercial). So this revelation isn’t as startling as the film would have us believe.
However, this is not the main thrust of Ari Folman’s argument.
Just as Robin Wright’s career is ended, by signing on to the proposal, and thus begun, The Congress leaps into an animated world. Oddly, this jump in form is due to chemicals (inhaled) and not, as you may think, through digital means.
In fact, the whole digital future trope is dumped here as the film companies have now gone into the production of hallucinogenics, enabling any consumer to become anyone they want – including Robin Wright. The original attends the Futurological Congress where this new idea is revealed, leading to an assassination attempt and a takeover by rebels who oppose state control though these drugs.
Robin befriends Dylan Truliner, an animator and computer whizz who brought Wright to life in her post-acting digital career and introduces her to the new world which is inhabited by numerous David Bowies, Elvises, Egyptian gods, Frida Kahlos and Jesuses. As you can tell by those names, this is a scattergun approach to message-making. In this new world, we are informed by Truliner, chemistry has eliminated ego, competition, violence, war, secrets, strong and the weak and “Everyone is what they are. Everyone is what they want to be.” Yet seconds later he tells us he “fucked and burned a city.” It’s confused and contradictory.
The animation, it has to be said, is interesting. On the cheap-looking side, but simultaneously garish, it’s a 20s jazz-infused 60s trip – very much in the vein of 1968’s Beatles-fest Yellow Submarine (and you can find that particular ship in the film if you look hard enough). This retro feel matches the antiquated 60s and 70s obsessions with narcotics and state oppression which began in the animated segment of the film. But there’s nothing new being done with the visuals either, and they become tiresome quickly.
Impressive as the cast is, the performances can’t save the film: Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) couldn’t be more stereotypically Harvey Keitel in his role as Robin’s agent Al (though, perhaps this is a comment in itself); Mad Men’s Don Draper, Jon Hamm, is passable in his voice role as Dylan Truliner; Paul Giamatti (12 Years A Slave, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is as eminently likeable as always playing Wright’s son’s physician Dr Barker; Danny Huston (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Clash Of The Titans) is excellent as the disarmingly honest studio exec Jeff, in the real and cartoon worlds; and Robin Wright manages quite the task in being sympathetic and engaging throughout both live action and animation.
A special mention must go to the exquisite score by Max Richter, who also worked on Waltz With Bashir. His interpretation of the events is imaginative and haunting, and far better than the film itself deserved. Jumping from the gleefully jumpy animated world, full of bellowing and blustery bass, to the affecting sounds of Robin’s heartache and a dystopian society.
If you’re looking for a film or films which question identity, what it means to be alive, drugs, paranoia and anarchy, then there are much better films from the past 30 or 40 years which you could take your pick from (Alphaville, Scanner Darkly, Fahrenheit 451, Naked Lunch, and even Vanilla Sky). For a film so concerned with the future, The Congress is very rigidly stuck in the past.
The Congress is out in UK cinemas now.
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