An ageing actress in decline accepts one last job: she lets Miramount scan her image and likeness – and freely use it forevermore. Twenty years later, she is the guest of honor at the Miramount Nagasaki Congress, which presents its latest invention: live your own film, obtained on prescription...
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Nothing if not ambitious, Ari Folman’s long-in-production follow-up to his 2008 hit Waltz with Bashir is based upon a 1971 novel by Polish sci-fi master Stanislaw Lem—The Futurological Congress—and begins intriguingly, with an opening onscreen credit: 'Robyn Wright at [not 'in’] The Congress’.
then we enter the animation section, and at once the film begins to come apart
And then comes the first surprise: not the animation we were expecting, but an actual, flesh-and-blood Wright, staring directly into the camera as, offscreen, her agent (played by Harvey Keitel) describes at length the depths to which her once-promising career has sunk, post-Princess Bride and Forrest Gump: derailed by a multitude of 'lousy choices, lousy movies, lousy men . . .’
Something has to be acknowledged here: Keitel is an imposing screen presence—and as such, can be well deployed in films like Bad Lieutenant, where he’s pure animal, all force and intensity. But he’s a lousy actor. His line-deliveries are wooden, his gestures stiff; he never seems to be present in the scene with his co-stars. Which might just be excusable, were Wright not herself such a gifted naturalistic actor. Thus, her scenes with Keitel and Danny Huston—playing the head of 'Miramount’ Studios—are badly destabilised, caught as they are between three opposing performance styles: realist (Wright), theatrical (Huston) and bad (guess who).
Crass, wolfishly aggressive in the way of a Sammy Cohn, Huston’s mogul has a proposition for Wright: to allow herself to be sampled—her features, her expressions, her emotions—and converted into pure information, which can then be inserted at the studio's whim into new, entirely computer-generated releases. (Think: the recent 'resurrection’ of Tupac onstage with Snoop Dog at last year’s Coachella, a moment that might prove more historically significant than we currently realise.) In return, of course, she must agree never to act—physically, in any public sphere—again.
All the other big-name actors are doing it, he notes—Michelle Williams, Brad Pitt . . . And why not? They’re on the cusp of a technological revolution, a tsunami that threatens to wipe them all away. ('None of this will be here soon,’ he keeps saying—though whether he means the studio, the film industry, or the world, is left disturbingly unclear.) The carrot he dangles before her, however, is one any actress would find hard to resist: the promise to keep her eternally young. Onscreen, he vows, in whatever vehicle her avatar inhabits, she will never look older than 34.
This is the gist of the live-action section, which winds up occupying the first 50 minutes of the film—and it’s strong meat: an unsparing, bleakly comic look at the demands placed upon modern-day actresses. Their dramatically circumscribed lifespans, their perennial powerlessness. (There is, underlining all the possible uses to which the Wright-avatar could be put, always the distant implication of hardcore porn.) The satire is frequently funny—a disparaging reference to Australian actors, in particular—and sometimes remarkably close to the knuckle. More than once, a reference is made to the 'awful men’ in her past . . . and the venom of this pointed little barb is only sweetened by the knowledge that Sean Penn was the chairman of the Cannes jury which denied Folman the Palme d’Or in 2008.
But then we enter the animation section, and at once the film begins to come apart. In part, because Folman hasn’t bothered to define the rules of his fantasy-world, so our experience of it seems entirely arbitrary and obtuse. One moment Wright is entering the 'Miramount-Nagasaki Restricted Animation Zone’, which necessitates her taking an ampoule filled with . . . something, a drug presumably, that will allow her (and us) to view the world as a cartoon.
She does—and at once we’re plunged into The Congress itself, a surreal and bewildering saturnalia, through which a cel-drawn version of 'Robyn Wright’ wanders, lost and looking, by her own account, like 'Cinderella on heroin." But then she drinks some contaminated tap water in her animated hotel room, spiked with hallucinogens which pushes her into yet another set of cartoon adventures, this time involving terrorists, that push her further away from the primary narrative. (There’s also the implication that we’re simultaneously witnessing multiple versions of Wright herself. Which, under examination, makes even less sense.)
None of this is helped by a deliberately cartoon-y animation style, far from the clean lines of Bashir, and memorably described by one colleague, immediately after the screening, as 'Ralph Bakshi doing A Scanner Darkly." In fact, it’s clearly inspired by the Fleischer Studios’ output from the 1930s, and as such, is not only very different to what one might have expected, but also presents a further obstacle to credibility. This, we’re supposed to believe, is the collective unconscious of our race—a world based on Betty Boop and Koko the Clown one-reelers from a century earlier? Not PIXAR, or 'Spongebob’? Not The Simpsons?
The entire plot seems to be working toward something, a revelation that’s hinted at via the introduction of a handicapped son (a fiction) back in the real world, and later, by the introduction of a guide through this Never-Neverland (voiced by Jon Hamm). So it’s rather a disappointment when all this proves to have been a red herring, of no more importance or relevance than anything else we’ve witnessed—leaving the actual conclusion a damp squib. What, in the end, was this all about, anyway? What was even the point of The Congress itself?
It’s an intensely frustrating film, one that veers between excellent and silly in the space of seconds. A good line of dialogue is followed at once by a dreadful one. A scene that feels flat and perfunctory is followed by something breathtaking. (The sequence in which Wright is sampled, standing inside a machine that looks like a giant, glowing snowflake, is a tour de force—even for Keitel.) It’s ambitious, at least, and refreshingly unafraid to tackle some of the hot-button issues regarding celebrity in an age of digital reproduction. And Wright is typically superb. Nevertheless, it’s a muddled and finally unconvincing piece of work.