“Why not use the specimen herself?”
Actress Robin Wright posed that question to herself and then to filmmaker Ari Folman as the two set out to make The Congress, Folman’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated animated feature Waltz with Bashir. When he wrote the screenplay for that 2008 film, the director borrowed heavily from his experience fighting in the Israeli army during an invasion of Lebanon and a military strike in which Forman participated – a nightmarish incident which long troubled the writer/director who was at the time only 19 years of age.
In his sophomore film, Folman’s inspiration for The Congress came not from real life but from the writings of one Stanislaw Lem, an author considered by many to be among the foremost science fiction writers of the 20th Century. Folman had been interested in Lem’s work, and a particular title in Lem’s bibliography — The Futurological Congress — captured the director’s imagination. Lem had crafted something of an over-the-top story about a congress of futurists who gather to discuss remedies for an increasingly more crowded world of humans and how best to take action.
In Lem’s book, a revolution ensues among segments of the dissidents who grow disenchanted with the practice of forcing hallucinigenic drugs on an unwitting populace to give them the illusion of utopian life.
For The Congress, Forman cherry-picked certain of Lem’s elements and abandoned others. What results is a story about an actress of a certain age who’s facing the prospect of declining job offers. In comes a studio executive who promises her a lifetime of role after role – with a catch: Her future performances will be the result of sleight of hand. The actress must agree to have her image uploaded to a computer which will then manufacture an on-screen presence guaranteed never to age, never to tire, never to go without work, and never to be in competition with the actual human being whose more youthful image she bears.
Ah, there’s the rub: The actress must agree never to appear in a performance work of any kind again – whether stage or screen, live or recorded. That’s all. Sign the document. Here’s the check. Welcome to a new kind of future.
Forman says he knew fairly early on Robin Wright was the actress he wanted for the role. Said Forman: “Once I saw her, I knew immediately she was one.”
Which brings this story full circle: Wright, now an actress of a certain age, has gone on record that she eschews the botox route so popular among the Hollywood crowd. She admits to her age, thought the part was exceptional, and had been a fan of Folman’s debut film. Thus, the question about the specimen herself.
“I thought it was one of the most original concepts I’d ever heard of,” Wright said of Folman’s script. “I’d loved Waltz with Bashir. And I loved him the minute I met him. And I just felt there was a Kismet…it was meant to be. And the template of the way people perceive my career?”
At that point, Wright pauses to make quote signs in the air with her fingers. “Or how I’m seen in this career of mine? Most everybody remembers me from Forrest Gump and The Princess Bride, and they always will.
She adds that last remark with a certain amount of good-natured resignation, though not without a trace of irony, and smiles as if to suggest being somewhat stereotyped in Hollywood can often an undeniable fact of life, though not necessarily a reality Wright may embrace without a touch of benign exasperation.
Folman’s film – which shifts from live-action to animation before returning to live action – has met with generally positive reviews. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes weigh in with an aggregate score of 75 out of 100.
Some reviews suggest Folman’s film takes an anti-Hollywood stance, though the concept might also be defended as nothing more than the very real and increasingly-used practice of automation replacing the human component in the workplace – certainly an employee concern in big business for some time and clearly not limited to Hollywood. Placing the story in the entertainment arena does provide the added perspective of glitz, glamour and the heightened shock value only a human could provide when he or she is faced with the prospect of relinquishing the rights to his or her image and the emotions that come with that once-unique package. Add to that the agreement never to act again in any venue.
“I mean, it’s an exaggerated version of a reality that’s actually existing today which is — we have the technology,” Wright offers.
“I actually did it in a movie with Robert Zemickis. I am downloaded. I am on a chip. I am on a hard drive. All of my expressions are in a file somewhere. I was scanned 3-D. They could make a performance out of that that they scanned.”
That 2007 film, Beowulf, employed the use of motion capture technology similar to that used by Peter Jackson in his trilogy The Lord of the Rings. But that was a story set in a mythical kingdom and featured creatures that do not exist in the real world. When the same technology finds an application in a film exploring the creation of an avatar actor replacing a human actor in perpetuity — something of a cautionary tale results.
“So, he’s just exemplifying and exacerbating that part of reality which iis — wow, this could be. But it’s a journey . It’s a psychological scifi drama that is set in a course of reality that we should maybe think about.”
The Congress co-stars Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, and Jon Hamm. The film runs two hours and two minutes and is unrated.