Robin Wright (the actress playing a version of herself) has made some lousy choices when it comes to her film career and men, or so she is forcefully told by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) at the beginning of Ari Folman’s The Congress.
Her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has health problems, her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) thinks she should ‘do’ a Holocaust film as she can perfectly encapsulate ‘Nazi and victim’. These chalk-and-cheese children are just two of the reasons listed why character Wright ultimately chose life over the film offers and now Miramount Studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston) wants to offer her the chance to sign away the pressure. They wish to own “[the] thing called Robin Wright”; to create an image they manipulate and render in any filmic form as long as she retires from acting altogether. Any initial reluctance is given way to an affirmative and Wright is scanned; every emotion , every line, twinkle and wrinkle (a sequence that is particularly breath-taking, if completely isolating). The viewer is then transported twenty years into the future and the pension-age Wright is thrust into Abrahama City – the animated zone where she meets a 2D Disney-fied Jon Hamm.
The Congress, based upon a Stanislaw Lem story, is relevant, provocative, thematically rich – often to its detriment – and is almost impossible to categorise; part sci-fi, fantasy, family drama, there’s even some speculative dystopian fiction thrown in for good measure. However, what begins as a stinging critique and almost sly satire aimed primarily at the commodification of celebrity disappointingly loses its anger and gestates into something else entirely. The animated world is hallucinatory and disconcerting, a sinister Disney World™ where eagle-eyed viewers can spot Michael Jackson as a restaurant waiter, Grace Jones as a nurse or an exaggerated toothsome caricature of Tom Cruise. It is exhilarating, mesmerising and a little tiresome but perhaps this is the point in a post-avatar, digital-obsessed world? The questions of mortality our protagonist faces are replicated in our own manipulated interpretation; we should beware of the image. While its plethora of ideas and ambition feels relentless and even a little confusing, The Congress finally finds its humanity amid an existential denouement.
In any other actor’s hands, The Congress could have been a huge failure but the luminous Robin Wright delivers a stunning performance thanks, in part, to an excellent supporting cast of Keitel, Hamm, Huston and Paul Giamatti but mainly due to the fact that she is just that damn good. There is one scene in which the forty-plus Wright gazes at herself as Buttercup on a Princess Bride film poster, perhaps nostalgic for youth or the career she might have had, yet aside from the hair and the odd wisdom line, she appears exactly the same. If this film is one of her lousy choices, let’s hope she keeps on making them.