The Moving Reality of the Unreal
“You look fantastic, animated, I mean.”
—Jeff Green (Danny Huston)
The first image we see in The Congress is an extended close-up of Robin Wright’s face, two tears on her cheeks. As the camera slowly pulls out, we see what’s behind her, a large window that reveals an out-of-focus background. A disembodied voice—soon revealed to belong to her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel)—berates Wright for her “lousy choices”/ Her “whole story”. he asserts, is dominated by her choice of “lousy movies” and “lousy men”.
With this striking opening, Ari Folman’s film, available on VOD this month and in select US theaters 29 August, introduces its central themes, the relationship between visuality and storytelling and the differences between sensory and cognitive perceptions. Loosely adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress, the movie has Wright playing a version of herself, a 40-something actress who has made bad romantic decisions. She appears in two modes.
In the film’s first third, shot as live-action, she struggles with her waning career and the demands of parenting two teenagers, one of whom, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has a degenerative condition that causes sensory deprivation. Pressured by Jeff (Danny Huston), the smarmy head of the wittily named Miramount Studios, she makes a Faustian pact, agreeing not to perform in public for 20 years, while a digital process preserves her as an eternal 34-year-old. The studio will own this “Robin Wright”, capitalizing on her cinematic past as Buttercup (The Princess Bride) and Jenny (Forrest Gump) and using her image in a new filmic economy of scanned actors.
This first part is a damning indictment of ageism in Hollywood, especially the limited career options for actresses. While Robin laments her loss of “the gift of choice”. Al counters that being scanned is preferable to the fate of being “face-lifted to death.” Moreover, the film offers a bleak take on the corporatization of creativity beyond its swipes at the cult of youthful celebrity. New technologies might change film production, but they don’t alter power structures. Al says that Robin remains “their puppet”: actors and consumers both remain controlled by a system that denies individual identities.
In the animated second section, set 20 years into the future, the rotoscope style of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, gets an extreme makeover. The film draws on a century of animation techniques to create maximum sensory impact. A new, grey-haired, animated Robin wanders through the crazy collage cartoon landscape of Abrahama, a place indebted to The Yellow Submarine, Ralph Bakshi movies, manga, Max Fleischer, and Betty Boop cartoons. When she visits the Futurological Congress, where we share in the pleasures of recognition, spotting animated versions of Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and Grace Jones, as well as creatures that would be at home in Disney movies and others borrowed from The Matrix. Psychedelic flowers grow out of buildings. There are few rules inside this rabbit hole; as Robin describes the place, it’s the product of “a genius designer on an acid trip.”
The shift from live action to animation is disruptive. We’ve grown attached to Robin and Al, and the performances of Wright and Keitel are so accomplished that our first reaction is to want more of the same. But the rupture is precisely the point, forcing us to question the parameters of perception. This “animated zone”. as the film terms it, poses questions about the boundaries between life and death, definitions of reality, and the role of consumers’ as well as producers’ imagination.
Here the film takes up the legacy of the cartoon form, moving from physical to metaphysical reality. Much as Eisenstein observes of Disney’s characters, we know that animated figures are not living, that they are technological tricks, but we feel them as active, thinking creatures. This sense of life comes not from verisimilitude, but from our impression that cartoon characters are emotionally motivated. Playing on the double meaning of “animation”—vivacity and also a sequence of photographed drawings—the second part of the film uncovers the moving reality of the unreal.
Thus, we feel what cartoon Robin feels, and understand how others feel about her. When she sings a haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will”. we share her sense of surrender without any need to rationalize her ontological status. As if standing in for us, Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm), the animator who has controlled Robin’s image for 20 years, has fallen in love with his creation, and is willing to make “real” sacrifices for that love.
Our emotional response to cartoon Robin only intensifies the live-action segment’s critique of gender ageism and celebrity culture. As advertisements featuring her face float by on blimps, we see that her CGI avatar is now a superstar in a trashy sci-fi franchise titled Rebel Robot Robin. Even so, the studio proposes a new incarnation of Robin Wright, one to replace the CGI figure and to literalize the metaphor of celebrity consumption. She will be chemically available for ingestion, as fans can imagine themselves as her in any genre of their choice (including Holocaust movies, porn, and zombie movies), via drinking a milkshake or eating an omelet.
What they get is a distracting illusion, as the scene in which the evangelical Miramount president urges his followers to embrace their dreams makes clear. It’s a textbook example of the Frankfurt School’s indictment of the culture industry. The masses sway and cheer as he morphs from Clint Eastwood to Jesus to Robot Robin. The film industry of the future turns out to be a redaction of the past, within which Robin, at last, can only rage against the machine, urging the people to “Wake Up!”
But this may not be possible. The shift from live action to animation reveals how the former was already full of the extraordinary: Wright and her kids live in a converted aircraft hangar that looks more like a movie set than a home. In the geodesic sampling room, she overcomes her performance anxiety in reacting to Al’s initial monologue, at once articulating the film’s critique but also exemplifying the power of storytelling itself as it moves Robin to tears. What is real?
As the end of the film returns briefly to live action and then back again to animation, Robin must make a choice between keeping her memories and identity intact or embracing the still expanding possibilities of reinvention. “Movies are old news, remnants of the last millennium,” says Miramount’s dictator. The Congress pays homage to this past. It’s a film in love with the history of cinema, but it also pushes the medium forward in form and content.
So while the movie suggests the entertainment industry is dystopian, its own rich strangeness offers a utopian corrective. The Congress is an ode to cinema that celebrates—indeed, animates—the affective power of imagination.