The Congress (GFF 2014)

The CongressRobin Wright (playing herself) is a star on the wane; the once in-demand actress — famed for the likes of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump — hasn’t made a film in years, and her chequered history with Miramount Studios has left her with few friends in the Hollywood system. She still needs to provide for her disabled son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), however, and is advised by her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), to sign a one-off contract that will give the studios the rights to use her image for the next twenty years. Technology has advanced to the stage that an actor can be scanned by computers, and their performances thereafter rendered digitally without their involvement, or even permission. In the future, she is summoned to a congress with Miramount manager Jeff (Danny Huston) to discuss the next stage in her career.

Having been voted the European Animated Film of the Year at the European Film Awards back in 2013 (the committee clearly hadn’t caught up with Disney’s Frozen at that point), it will likely come as something of a surprise when half an hour into The Congress you are still watching Robin Wright in live-action. Though disorientating, however, this section of the film is incredibly strong. A beautifully shot and somewhat scathing satire of the American film industry, The Congress posits a not-too-distant future in which actors are taken out of the acting process. The film comments on everything from Wright’s own filmography to the impact of aging on a performer’s career. Even once the film has switched to animation, this thread of the narrative proves just as fruitful, with further exploration of the actor as a brand and of the very future of film itself.

Wright is terrific in quite a difficult role, convincing as a credible version of herself while also giving what is quite clearly (particularly later on in the film) a performance, too. An actress with an aversion to science fiction movies (among a great many other things, it seems) in what is very much a science fiction movie, she could have been a very different character to pull off. It’s almost a shame that she has to become a cartoon at all, so effective are her earlier scenes both at home and at work. The sequence in which she is actually scanned is one of the film’s best, as Keitel’s character is forced to run Wright through the whole gamut of emotions for the studio’s computers. The whole cast is great, in fact, though only Huston’s presence truly carries over to the animated segments, thanks in large part to his already caricatured features.

At first, the animation when it comes is a surreal delight, as Wright drives along undulating rainbow roads flanked by leaping whales, assorted ships and fluid, florescent scenery, arriving at the titular congress to find guests drinking polyjuice potions that result in a whole host of celebrity cameos. The idea that you might one day consume movies orally is an interesting one, and ties beautifully into the film’s themes of freedom, choice and identity. With this change of direction already happening so late in the narrative, however, there is little to no time to establish any rules or logical flow, and what started out as a sober satire soon descends into almost meaningless surrealism. At least, it appears meaningless to anyone unwilling to do the legwork for themselves; there are probably tens of interpretations or insights to draw from The Congress if you have the time or inclination to analyse it after the fact (I’ve since heard one reading of the film which invokes the Palestine conflict), but during the movie it’s hard not to get lost in the fast-flowing torrent of consciousness that Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman seems to have unleashed, apparently indiscriminately.

It doesn’t stop there, however, for having apparently lost interest in his first thesis (that would be the one involving the future of actors and acting) Folman returns to the relationship between Wright and her son in a spectacularly grinding gear-change. Suddenly back in the real world, God knows how many years in the future — and remember, we’d already jumped twenty years before it even went animated for the first time — Wright is confronted by Zeppelins and apocalyptic ruin as she goes in search of her now adult son. At the beginning of the movie Aaron Wright is seen playing with kites, and the imagery is carried over here as his mother rides a familiar kite-like contraption up to one of the blimps floating overhead. You sense that her search is supposed to be fraught with urgency and emotion, but everything is so confused by this point that you’re still too busy trying to figure out what the invasion at the congress fifteen minutes ago was all about. Imagine The Matrix or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, only described to you by an excited child with an overactive imagination.

The Congress starts out as a five-star satire, a refreshingly ruthless assault on stardom and celebrity, but systematically undermines itself with flights of fancy too unfathomable to really qualify as a coherent argument. It seems unsatisfied to have merely broken the fourth wall, and continues to break down boundaries faster than it can actually set them up. It’s overcrowded and undercooked, resulting in a final act that is neither intellectually stimulating or emotionally satisfying. It outlasted its welcome to such an degree that I’m not even sure I can be bothered tracking down Stanislow Lem’s source novel in pursuit of answers.

3-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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