Waltz With Bashir animator Ari Folman takes on the advancing techno nature of the Hollywood film industry in his hybrid (live action/animation), political sci-fi The Congress. It’s hard to distinguish whether the film itself or the myriad of ideas it boldly flags deserve the true credit. Debate aside, Folman uses animation to illustrate the ‘death of the physical actor’, ironically using retro 2D drawings like an old Disney cartoon, perhaps as a personal protest of the more advanced 3D animation coming out of the studios now.
Robin Wright (playing herself), now fortysomething and struggling to find work, was once a celebrated Hollywood actor going places and the darling of the big studio who has financed her career, ‘Miramount’, especially in her heyday in The Princess Bride (1987). Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) comes to tell her of a one-off deal proposed by studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) to keep her in the spotlight forever – allowing the studio to create an avatar of Robin Wright to use as it wishes in future productions. This does come at a price: no negotiation on the kind of film featured in, a one-off payment and a promise never to act again. However, the consequences of Wright’s agreement come at a far bigger price than she could never imagine, as the animated and live worlds collide.
There are a whole number of juicy topics addressed in this near-future-set film, including the supposed advancement of technology for the better good, ageism, sexism, loss of identity, intellectual property to corporate terrorism to name a few. It often feels like a smattering of ideas fired out of a barrel, like following a live animated debate at times. The only settling factor is watching Wright as herself and as her 2D avatar, both with a weary sadness to her features as the business of the film business takes its toil.
The first half of the film depicts the grace and elegant of Wright in the flesh with the camera still adoring her. The troubling element is being asked to believe Keitel as the fictitious casting agent. It appears mixing live-action and animation works but mixing real-life and fiction gets a tad muddled when one actor is playing herself with dignity, and the other incorporates a fictional character.
Once Wright drives into the animated zone of Abrahama, the new studioland that takes over reality at the security crossing (straight out of Roger Rabbit territory), she becomes lost, like a ghost of her former self within a colourful canvas of eccentric characters. There is some fun to be had spotting other stars who have ‘gone avatar’ too. It’s here where plot gets skewed a little and a psychedelic smorgasbord of events peppers the scenery. Thankfully, there is one plot driver to grasp onto – Wright trying to find her son.
The Congress is advanced in its own technology and thinking, raising many social concerns we all have about the future of the digital revolution that could retire the very beings that have created it. If nothing else, The Congress plays to our fears, perhaps ironically, with hindsight affecting our view of it as a piece of social commentary too?