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From visionary filmmaker Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir) comes a new tale in The Congress, starring Robin Wright (The Princess Bride). In a futuristic world (which is never given a date during the film) the role of an actor in film is rapidly changing. Studios are no longer looking towards working with actors anymore. All films are to be made digitally with actors given an entire body scan which integrates all of their personal quirks into a computerized system that allows CGI animators to tweak life-like realizations of them.
At what cost? Actors can get a "generous" compensation (as the studio says) for selling their entire likeness... and an actor cannot work in any form within the industry of acting ever again for as long as they breathe. Studios own the rights to the actors digital copies, who can thereby perform in any film that becomes produced.
In this twisted alternate-reality future, Robin Wright plays a fictionalized alternate-universe version of herself in which she is still the same actress who had successes with some films (ranging from her iconic roles in The Princess Bride to Forrest Gump) while also struggling throughout her career... with many of the films she made considered as flops.
Robin is approached by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) about getting a digital scan: transferring over her image rights to the film studio Miramount, who will make her become "34 years old.. forever." She will then begin performing in a variety of films, digitally, as someone who will be made a eternal cinema star but at the cost of her never being able to be involved in filmmaking or performance again herself. It will all be done by computer engineers with new technology.
Because of the ill-health of her young son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee of Let Me In), who might be facing a future of total darkness of vision and who can barely hear, Robin wants to have the means available to support and raise him properly despite his conditions. For Aaron's medical needs she seeks the expertise of Dr. Baker (Paul Giamatti), who offers no ray of hope but who feels determined to help her and Aaron during the tough road he envisions ahead. Ultimately, Robin Wright signs the contract and sells her image to Miramount to help her son.
After the process is completed, Robin Wright now lives her life in a quiet manner with her son until she is called once more into a meeting at the congress - a extravagant hotel of sorts for all former actors to enter as animated selves in a strict "animation-only" zone. In this zany cartoon world, clearly inspired by Fleischer cartoons of the 30's, the world is turned upside down with everyone inside barely resembling their former selves... and with many individuals taking on entirely new looks. Robin Wright has been summoned at the end of her contract - which was created for twenty-years (which was believed to be her life expectancy from the studio). She survives outside her contract window alongside only one other individual, both of whom the studio hopes to create brand new contracts with. The studio executive continues to find new ways of trying to own the actor's identity. Robin Wright receives a proposition of selling her image in the form of a pill which anyone can take and become her, dream as her, or imagine Robin Wright in their own movie... exactly as they see fit.
Devastated by the world around her, Robin explores the colorful but empty animated world. She meets Dylan Truliner (voiced by Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame), an animated character who has helped to bring her image to life with the digital technology for two decades. They form a rather unlikely bond, though Truliner feels convinced that he has loved Robin Wright for decades as he "worked with her" on so many projects. Robin begins hallucinating her own animated dreams of even worse possibilities within the animation-zone. Meanwhile, a rebellion begins which is from those hoping to put an end to the newly proposed pill which can turn anyone into someone else.
Miramount Studios head-executive (performed by Danny Huston) is a despicable, diabolical producer who cares only about making money off of the image of actors by doing the scans. Filmmaker Ari Folman will likely never work on a future film with The Weinstein Company going forward, as this ruthless executive seems to be a parodied version of Harvey Weinstein. The name of Miramount also clearly comes from Weinstein's former film company Miramax (along with major studio Paramount).
Huston's performance embodies the idea of executives who care more about the bottom-line of revenue than about the people they work with while making films. Folman, as writer/director, also seems to be making strong commentary on the way women are treated in the Hollywood system with many aging actresses being treated as though they will be discarded by the film industry if they don't attempt to look much younger through surgeries, as the great film roles become harder to come by for many actresses in the field. (In a moment of irony in the script, later in the film the Miramount Studio head wants control over the original Robin Wright as her natural beauty is something becoming increasingly rare as all actors have surgery for their looks -- ironical, as Folman wisely suggests a huge part of it is to please studio executives so that new parts can continue to come in).
The Congress would be nowhere near as good as it is without the contributions of the brilliant Robin Wright. This performance feels fearless and bold in a way that truly stands out. This is a spectacular performance that should easily be considered as one of the best of the year. Wright is impeccable at bringing forth her every emotion and natural energy to the experience of this film. There is a gravitas to her acting here that is truly at the heart of the film's success. She brings her character - a fictionalized, alternate-universe version of herself - to life in a way that feels perfect for the film's thematic material. Most actors would probably want to shy away from this type of role but Wright embraces it brilliantly. And she does magnificent work during the live scenes and as a voice-actor helping to bring the animated sequences to fruition.
The harsh reality of this film's science fiction proposal is that fact that studio executives have already had discussions over such topics: there have been lightshow performances of music artists who long since passed and discussions have been noted in the media about the new possibilities technology presents to bring dead actors back to life in new films (with some legendary figures like Bruce Lee tossed around as possible actors to bring back to cinema). Which begs the question: how can one sell a copyright to an individual person? To own the ability for them to star in films they never had any involvement with? Yet this has become a actual topic of discussion within the industry. One can only hope this never becomes the real future of film.
Though the idea for the film came to Folman from the writing of Stanislaw Lem, the script and direction this film takes is much different. The allegory is meant to be much the same but what was focused on has dramatically shifted in this adaptation of the core concepts. (For example, the original story had nothing to do with actors or the Hollywood studio system.)
The Congress might sometimes feels like a effort that has even more ideas that it wants to chew on than it is capable of handling. Conceptually, the film is a brilliant satire exploring modern technology and the entertainment industry in a contemplative way. Though the execution of these ideas can sometimes seem surprising. The spirit of inventiveness from Folman feels refreshing regardless.
The filmmaking has an abundance of ideas explored through the dream-like animated sequences to the cinema homage made to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. With a effective blend of animated sequences and traditional live-action filmmaking, The Congress stands as one of a few productions to utilize this non-traditional filmmaking technique (of blending these two different styles) in such an outstanding way. The blend of styles works splendidly.
Set to the hypnotic score composed by collaborator Max Richter, this surrealistic and compelling film is a flawed yet intelligent exploration of technology and of acting within the ever-evolving film industry. The Congress is filled with an abundance of pessimistic undercurrents of a future of filmmaking in which the actor is never considered - nor are other filmmakers - just the cold, mechanical, money-making machine. With no humans involved, whatsoever.
Let's hope The Congress has it wrong and technology never replaces the need for real human actors. As far as I am concerned, the humanity that can be felt in the making of a film and through experiencing a film is why filmmaking matters so much. Art is all about human connection and expression. That's the key to art. To lose everything inherent in that core fundamental attribute would be to lose the point of making art altogether. And thus the entertainment world would become solely about creating commercialism. This is Folman's nightmare. Removing the warmth of human hands in filmmaking would be a dire future for filmmaking and for the entire world, indeed.
The Congress arrives on Blu-ray with a stunning 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded image in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film has a meticulous design with everything in great detail, from the live-action cinematography to the bizarrely surrealistic animated scenes. Encoded with great precision by Drafthouse Films, The Congress has a strong 32 mbps bit-rate which allows for a lot of room for the film's complex animated sequences. This is a crisp, clean, beautiful image: highly digital but also immensely satisfying. The only video-related issue that arrives during the entire presentation is some minor banding, but it's so fleeting that one can't help but be amazed by the near-perfect presentation. This release is absolutely worthy of our highest score for its magnificent presentation merits. No viewer will walk away feeling any disappointment from the quality delivered.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24 bit presentation sounds absolutely splendid. It's a stunning presentation on a technical level and never wavers in quality. This is a crisp sounding film in terms of the audio design. It's never showy in the way some might be hoping for but there is clarity and detail that impresses and the ambiance of the presentation feels perfect. The fine integration of sound effects when necessary works extremely well and the use of the score composed by the brilliant Max Richter is the highlight.
The first thing to notice about this release is that it comes in a beautiful clear Blu-ray case with an optional reverse cover-art (showcasing the animated aesthetic of the film). Inside the case there is also a 16 page booklet featuring a note from writer/director Ari Folman, and a short question and answer with Folman about the film. Production photos are also included. It's certainly a worthy booklet for anyone with any appreciation for this film to take a look at.
On disc supplements provided for The Congress include Audio Commentary with writer/director Ari Folman, a Interview (9 min.) with Robin Wright, TV Promotional Spot (:30) and the film's Theatrical Trailer. Trailers promoting other releases by Drafthouse Films are also provided.
Lastly, there is a code to redeem for a digital download of The Congress.
It's rare to experience a film with so much ambition and such strong originality. Even though the film was inspired by a book by acclaimed sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, few films carry the level of creativity that is on display in this film. Such a distinct cinematic voice is a rare commodity, which helps The Congress to feel all the more remarkable even though there are parts of this story which are too abstract and confusing for this film to hit every mark with total precision. With a brilliant performance by Robin Wright, The Congress is absolutely worth seeing for her remarkable acting and for the distinctly creative vision of director Ari Folman.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.