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Ari Folman animates Robin Wright in ‘The Congress’

May 21, 2013

CANNES, France (AP) — Hollywood is hell.

That’s an idea to set tongues wagging at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s the distinct impression left by Israeli director Ari Folman’s head-spinning part-animated feature “The Congress.”

Fittingly, Cannes provided the inspiration for the director’s dystopian vision of the entertainment business, which stars actress Robin Wright as, well, actress Robin Wright — a 40something performer whose career is on the slide.

Folman conceived the kernel of the film when he came to the festival in 2008 with “Waltz With Bashir,” his Academy Award-nominated animated film about his experiences as a young Israeli soldier in Lebanon in the 1980s.

The director said he was walking through the bustling movie marketplace at Cannes when he saw an elderly woman.

“And my sales agent asked me, do you recognize this lady? And I said no,” Folman said. “And he told me her name and I was shocked, because she was this goddess American actress from the 70s. She was in her 70s, and no one recognized her. And this is Mecca for cinema, this place!

“And I thought, she’s got in front of her, everywhere, the image of her young, stolen forever in the movies. And here she is and she has to live with her image forever young, but she’s getting old.”

Folman diplomatically declined to name the actress. But he said the episode gave him a way to realize a long-held dream of adapting “The Futurological Congress,” a satirical sci-fi novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem in which pharmaceutical overlords keep the population hooked on hallucinogenic drugs.

In the movie, Wright agrees to become a “scanned actor,” a digital avatar owned by her studio. The digital Wright can be endlessly, agelessly used in new movies — the studio makes her “Agent Robin” in a sci-fi action series — while the flesh-and-blood person grows old in obscurity.

The film’s live-action first half is an entertainingly bleak depiction of Hollywood, with an on-the-ropes Wright berated by her agent (a delicious Harvey Keitel) and bullied by her studio boss (a malevolent Danny Huston).

Wright has been called brave for taking on issues of aging and image so directly. But Folman said he didn’t see it that way when he offered the role to the actress after sitting across from her at an awards ceremony and thinking she looked sad.

“I think it’s a great role,” he said. “She is Robin Wright, she is Agent Robin in the movie, she’s an animated character, she’s an old Robin at the very end, she sings two songs — it’s a great role.

“Although Harvey Keitel told me one day on the set, ‘Man, she is so brave. You could have offered me the world, I would never do what she does in this movie.’”

Wright has said she doesn’t think she is playing herself, even though she and her screen character share a name and many biographical details, including roles in “The Princess Bride” and “Forrest Gump.”

Once Wright has been digitally scanned, the movie switches to animation as the character visits a conference at a luxury hotel — where her films screen endlessly and she goes unrecognized — and learns of a sinister plot to make the power of celebrity even more addictive.

The movie’s audacious shifts of tone, and its swirling, psychedelically tinged animation, have elicited diverse reactions at Cannes, where “The Congress” opened the Director’s Fortnight competition.

Many saw it as original but uneven. It’s inarguably a strikingly original work by a director who is both amused and despairing about the modern entertainment business.

Folman, a genial, bearded 50-year-old sporting a gold medallion and an earring, says he fears the sort of movies that inspired him — the director-driven American cinema of the 1970s — is dying, soon to be found only in cinema museums.

And don’t get him started on 3-D, CGI and the other digital tricks that, Folman thinks, are ruining movies.

“The role of the director is completely different (today),” he said. “Until recently the urgency on the set to make a movie was huge. Today, it’s only part of the job, because you can fix everything afterwards. The set is blue screens, and then you build it and you can fix it. And sometimes it’s for the good, but I can give you examples where it’s terrible.

“My favorite sci-fi movie ever is ‘Blade Runner.’ This film was done with hand-made crafts.”

For the movie, director Ridley Scott “built the sets — it’s wood and paper and plastic and aluminum. I see this movie every few months on a big screen at home and it will live forever.

“Same guy did ‘Prometheus’ last year. Who saw it?”

Folman is keeping the flame burning for an older form of cinema — but it’s a slow and laborious process. “The Congress” took five years to make, and slightly under an hour of animation required two years of work by animators in nine countries.

“I try not to look at myself as this nostalgic (person),” Folman added, pausing a second before adding: “But.”

“I don’t say we will have scanned actors. I think the human side will win. I am a true believer in that.

“But if I look at my kids and the way they use everything — iPads and electronics and everything — I have to be honest with myself and say, if my kids, in 15 years’ time, see a movie with scanned characters, they won’t give a damn.”


Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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