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The Congress (15)
Vue, Piccadilly Circus
10th August 2014

★★★★★

With so many films blurring into each other - action thrillers starring some Expendable a dime a dozen - it's so refreshing to see a movie which is unlike anything else. When you walk out of The Congress, if you find yourself asking "what the hell just happened?" you won't be on your own in that. It's a bizarre jumble of ideas and techniques that somehow come together to create a truly brilliant piece of work. It's "what the hell" in a good way. Truly.

Robin Wright plays herself, à la Being John Malkovich, and the film not only references some of her earlier works, but includes original posters from 80s classic The Princess Bride. The studio, Miramount - do you see what they did there? - wants to "sample" Robin, so it can continue to make films starring her for decades to come, but without her actually having to turn up on set. The idea is, the animators will spend a few hours scanning her and then they'll be able to manipulate those pixels into anything her contract permits. No Holocaust movies, no porn - but Rebel Robot Robin doesn't offend any artistic sensibilities. It's a sweet and well-paid gig, but the catch is, this will be "the last contract" Robin will ever have. She'll become "the actress who used to be the actress", she won't own the rights to perform as herself anymore.

The concept of controlling your own image has been building to a frenzy since the early days of people detagging Facebook photos. Think of poor Kate Middleton, rebranded Catherine and constantly snapped with her dress blowing up and/or her clothes off. Not having any power over who sees photos like that is bad enough, but being prevented from being - from losing the ownership of your own actions as well as how you look - it feels instinctively horrible. With prostitution, you sell your body for one night. With sampling, you sell your body forever, you can't just get out of the game if you change your mind. It's gone.

The woefully underrated sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem gets a story credit based on his 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, and you can see why, but Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman hasn't merely made a few tweaks here and there. He's substantially updated the plot for today's advances in technology and to create a female protagonist with whom the audience can instantly identify. If you remember that achingly harrowing documentary, especially the ending, you'll have no doubt as to Folman's skill in eliciting empathy for animated characters. He's Pixar with its heart ripped out and replaced with coal, fuelled by cynicism rather than kids' dreams.

We're not far away from a world where we could in theory dispense with live actors - think of all the wizardry that has gone into films like Avatar. The tabloids are always printing stories about actors who allegedly fail to turn up on time and not necessarily in a fit state to work - naming no names, Lindsay Lohan - and you can certainly see the commercial appeal for the studio. "It's not like anything has changed. They came, they saw, they took, they made crappy rom coms... You were always their puppet," remarks Robin's agent, Al (Harvey Keitel) in moment of pure insight.

Like Wright, the character of Robin has two children, but here they're fictional rather than taken from real life, presumably in an attempt to keep something sacred. There's no mention of their father but it's made clear that Robin has raised Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Sarah (Sami Gayle) herself and that the three are a very close-knit unit. Aaron has an undisclosed illness which is deteriorating and is likely to steal his eyesight - Robin's love for him is what pushes her to agree to become a scanned artist and give up doing what she's always enjoyed most. This bond is portrayed rather touchingly, as is the relationship between Robin and Al. He's been with her through the good and the bad times, and now, as she sets to make her very last deal, he's at her side.

When the film turns from live action into 2D, it takes on a distinctly trippy feel, and is instantly elevated from "probably quite good" to "complete mind explosion". Robin remarks to her children that the 2D world is like something a genius designer on a bad acid trip came up with, and it's so close to the bone that it's very funny. This is everything I love about weird French and Belgium animations all thrown together.

Stylistically, there are similarities to Waltz with Bashir, but this is a much weirder use of cartoon. A 2D cameo by Tom Cruise is unexpected and delightful, with Folman getting away with rather a lot thanks to the legal defence of parody. Earlier scenes with Robin and Aaron flying his favourite red kite have an emotional pull, and with a dimension stripped, Folman still manages to evoke feelings of sadness as Robin desperately tries to reunite with him. It doesn't seem to matter what medium he uses, he manipulates both people and pixels with skill.

A pointed dig at how scientists have invested so much time in creating this other world and failed to research a cure for Aaron's undisclosed medical condition feels a little out of place - a bit like the global warming message inserted into Happy Feet - but it's one minor niggle in an otherwise brilliant film. When we think we've been pushed far enough, there's more to follow. We just about get our heads round the idea of an actor selling their own image when film studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) brings up the concept of turning that image into a liquid that the paying audience can drink, allowing them to imagine that actor doing whatever they want. "Now tell me Robin, when you fantasise alone in the dark, do you pay him or her royalties?" asks Jeff, crudely making his point. Commodification for the win!

This invariably won't appeal to everyone, but The Congress is such a wonderfully surreal film. It's already had some success at last year's Cannes Film Festival, but what it deserves is an overwhelming positive mainstream response too. I can't remember the last time I walked out of a screening this overwhelmed and excited - go see this film. Repeatedly. Then buy the Blu-ray and watch it again.

The Congress was released in the UK on 15th August 2014.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Bakerloo, Piccadilly)



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