Directed by Ari Folman. Starring Robin Wright, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Fisher, Don McManus, Sami Gayle, Jon Hamm, Michael Stahl-David, Michael Landes, Sarah Shahi. Written by Folman, from the novel by Stanisław Lem.
Actress Robin Wright stars as, ahem, Robin Wright in director Ari Folman’s ambitious The Congress, a dense, heady little piece of science fiction from the director of the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir, based on the novel The Futurological Congress by Polish author Stanislaw Lem (best known for Solaris, which was turned into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky and later Steven Soderbergh).
The resulting film is a complex piece of work that employs a wide range of styles and themes: it’s a half-live-action, half-animated exploration of celebrity and the future of ‘movie stars’, a dystopian portrait of a world where citizens are kept in line through mind-altering drugs, and, ultimately, an intimate treatise on personal identity and a mother’s relationship with her children.
In the opening present-day scenes, which are live-action, Wright plays herself in a fourth-wall breaking material that almost recalls Being John Malkovich. Because we are watching a famous actor portray themselves, but aren’t completely aware of what is taken from their life and what is written for the character, a level of surrealism envelopes the proceedings.
Wright is living with her two children – Sarah (Sami Gayle) and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a degenerative health condition – in a reconstructed warehouse next to an airfield. Her agent Al, played by Harvey Keitel, is in negotiations with studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston)… but not for a role. For Wright’s image; her public identity.
“I don’t want you,” Jeff tells her, “I want Buttercup from The Princess Bride, Jenny from Forrest Gump… and whatever her name was in State of Grace.”
The idea is this: the studio (‘Miramount’, a merge Miramax and Paramount) will scan Wright from head to toe, digitize all her movements and emotional reactions, and let studio technicians create her performances in a computer. Wright herself will retire from acting, but her image will continue to make movies for the studio, who will own ‘Robin Wright’, or at least her public/professional identity.
Benefit to the studio? No more dealings with those pesky stars, who delay shoots and back out of projects. They’ve already signed on a number of actors, and Wright, whose career has been in a flux following some bad decisions, reluctantly agrees.
Keitel doesn’t have a whole lot to do as the agent, and he’s absent from the second half of the movie, but this is the best he’s been in ages; an extended monologue about his career origins – which he shares to try to elicit emotional responses from Wright during the scanning – is absolutely magnetic, and one of the highlights of the film.
Flash-forward twenty years. Wright’s image is the most popular movie star around, starring in a series “Rebel Robot Robin” action films, but her contract is set to expire. She drives out to the desert city of Abrahama to speak to the studio, but is stopped at the gate by a security guard. “This zone is animated only.” He hands her a glass capsule, and soon the screen is dripping bright colors and fantastic elements as Wright becomes an animated version of herself.
Things have changed. A lot.
The fluid, vibrant animation style is part Ralph Bakshi, part Bruno Bazzeto, part Yellow Submarine (or even Gerald Scarfe’s work in The Wall). The gorgeous hand-drawn feel of this future world – where people can be anyone or anything they imagine – is at direct odds with its true purpose: as a prison that locks its citizens inside their own minds to distract them from the true reality of their lives.
This was the theme of Lem’s novel, but how does it tie in to the Robin Wright celebrity angle? The Congress might be a little more ambiguous than most audiences will want or expect, but it’s ultimately a thought-provoking journey about personal identity: the image of ourselves that we present to the world, and the one we discover inside our own minds.
This film also stars Paul Giamatti as the doctor treating Wright’s son. Jon Hamm lends his voice to a character who served as Wright’s animator for 20 years. The animated image of Tom Cruise (voiced by a soundalike) is one of the film’s neat little wink-wink nods.