Have you ever watched a movie and thought – I need someone to tell me whether I liked this or not. Or better yet, I need someone to show me how to like this. Or even why.
It’s possible I lack the mental acuity to even describe this movie to you, despite the fact that I’ve seen it very recently, discussed it very recently, and have Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB right at my fingertips. Still this movie eludes me.
The Congress: a deceptive title if ever there was one. Robin Wright plays Robin Wright – an aging actress who was once a bankable sex symbol as the Princess Bride, but after a series of bad choices and focus on her family, has been out of the public eye and is much less in demand. Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) has landed her one last meeting with the Miramount studio where executive Jeff Green (Danny Huston) offers to save her from herself. The movie industry is in the middle of a revolution: actors are being digitally scanned into a studio’s bank, and Robin is urged to join up now while she has any cachet left at all. The studio will own the character of ‘Robin Wright’ and the real Robin Wright must never act again. She takes a lump sum and a 20 year contract, and she and Keitel share a powerful scene – while she stands in a sphere where a cinematographer is now employed to be her scanner, Keitel recounts a story that takes her from laughter to tears. This is Robin Wright at her absolute best. The years fade away. She is radiant. It feels a travesty that this will be her last performance; she bares her soul even as she sells it.
We jump ahead 20 years. About to renew her contract, Robin now an older woman goes unrecognized since her famous digital self is timeless. She attends Miramount’s Futurological Congress, located in the animation zone, where everyone entering must take an ampoule to become an animated avatar. So this is when the live action movie becomes a cartoon.
The studio executive cartoon tells Robin Wright the cartoon that they’ve now developed the technology where Robin Wright the character can now become Robin Wright the chemical. Still following? People will be able to sprinkle her compound into a milkshake, drink it, and become her. They can use her likeness in their fantasies. They can think up any scenario. They can fuck Princess Buttercup or be chased by zombie-Jenny from Forrest Gump or get spanked by Claire from House of Cards. Movies are “old news – a remnant from the last millennium.”
Robin is supposed to give the keynote speech at the symposium but has a change of heart, instead railing against the technology, angry that they haven’t used it instead to cure real disease. “I am your prophet of doom” she says.
Then things get crazier still. Still animated, she gets caught up in a rebellion and is saved, ironically, by the former “head of the Robin Wright department,” an animator who knows her so intimately he’s a little in love with her (voiced by Jon Hamm). She’s unable to distinguish reality from hallucination in this state, so they freeze her for many years until she wakes up in a time when in fact hallucination can become reality, with a pill. The real world is bleak, its inhabitants leached of colour, dysfunctional. The only ones still able to cope hover above the earth in airships, the last of a dying breed.
This is obviously a very ambitious film, adapted from and loosely based on a novel by Stanisław Lem. Director Ari Folman, of Waltz with Bashir, is no stranger to ambition, but this little mindfuck takes the cake. Using a political allegory to savage the increasingly degrading and dehumanizing movie industry is not a perfect fit, but it does inspire some interesting questions, though Folman is, as ever, light-handed with those. He doesn’t like to beat us over the head with ‘message’ so we’re left to make of this hybrid what we will.
The people in the film are duped by pharmaceuticals into believing their dystopia is actually utopia, and we feel the contrast acutely, jumping from lush animation to miserable cinematography. I felt a lot, actually – I reacted viscerally to the emotional undercurrent even when I was struggling to identify what was real and what was dream and what was my own projection. It’s provocative and introspective but not particularly cohesive, even factoring in an allowance for a certain amount of “trippyness”. There’s a vision here that isn’t quite pulled off, and I more or less felt abandoned during the final chapter of the film.
Do I regret taking this on? Not in the least. Attempts can be inspiring. I only regret that I didn’t take someone along with me, because when you’re lost among lofty ideas and niggling questions, it’s best to have a hand to hold.