I'm having a hard time coming to grips with The Congress - and maybe that's the point, since it is a movie about perception versus reality. Can I complain that it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, when the whole point - or at least one of them - is that it's about not knowing what you want to be, or indeed which reality you prefer to inhabit? Form could be following function, or it could actually be a less coherent film than I was hoping for. Or maybe both. Either way, I'm impressed with this live-action/animated hybrid, but not as engaged as I'd hoped, though I'm pretty sure it merits further contemplation.
The Congress is divided into three distinct segments, each of which is tonally different from the others. The first, set in the present day, sees actress Robin Wright - as herself - deciding whether or not to sell her life rights to a movie studio, which will then manipulate an eternally young virtual version of her in any movie they wish, while she must agree never to act again. It's rife with Hollywood in-jokes, but ends on a poignant note.
The second, set 20 years in the future, sees Wright entering an "animated zone" wherein she becomes a cartoon scheduled to speak to the "Futurist Congress" and re-up her life-rights deal, which is about to expire. This part ranges from whimsical to nightmarish, sometimes within the same scene.
It would be spoiling to say too much about the third segment, which skips forward another 20 years, but it involves making the choice between the real and the animated.
Those who've seen the animated segments in the trailer might be confused by how long it takes to kick in; at first, we're just following Robin Wright, a single parent who lives in a remodeled hangar just outside LA airport. Daughter Sarah is a punky teen who has no qualms about talking back to mom about what roles she should take, while son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is gradually losing his eyesight and hearing, and also seems to be at least a little bit Aspergers-y, obsessed with the Wright brothers and planes, and completely unable (or unwilling) to understand why security guards have a problem with his kite going over the fence into the airport.
During a medical exam - the inevitable motivation for Wright to make the big-money deal to sell her virtual image forever - Aaron's doctor (Paul Giamatti) mentions that in the future, everything we see and hear will come from artificial mental stimuli, and Aaron is already on his way there. Meanwhile, in the present, as actors are phased out completely, the line between real and unreal in what we see is being ever more erased.
When we see Wright many years later, she's entering the animated world in a spectacular psychedelic sequence that's like a mix of 2001's stargate with Roger Rabbit's Toon Town. Live-action intrudes in the form of a film virtual Robin has made - it's the real her (rather than a cartoon) and yet it isn't (because it's her manipulated, sold likeness). The animated world, which occasionally changes according to her mood, may be the true reality...albeit one in which she's preparing to sell her very DNA so that people can literally drink her.