Note: Film critic Tim Grierson is attending the Cannes Film Festival for the first time. For Backstage, he’ll be filing occasional diary entries about his thoughts and impressions of the granddaddy of all film festivals.
Friday, May 17, 1:14 a.m.
Cannes, like most film festivals, drives on star power. A terrific movie such as “Amour” can premiere here and win the Palme d’Or, paving the way for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, but for a certain (larger) part of the population, the festival’s bigger films will always be the ones that topline Brad Pitt. A film that debuted Thursday in the Director’s Fortnight section tackles these topics—art and celebrity—head on. Actors will no doubt be intrigued by the movie’s concept, but what it has to say about their profession might make them a little queasy.
The sci-fi, partly animated drama “The Congress” imagines a not-too-distant future where fading stars sign unusual contracts with studios, relinquishing the rights to their digital likeness in exchange for a big paycheck. “Waltz With Bashir” filmmaker Ari Folman casts Robin Wright as herself, in a stunt reminiscent of “Being John Malkovich” or Paul Giamatti’s turn in “Cold Souls.” (Interestingly, Giamatti has a small but important role in “The Congress.”) Because her young son is in need of an experimental, expensive auditory procedure, Wright takes the deal, despite her fears of losing her creative identity.
As will not be a surprise, that decision—which involves her agreeing to never act again so that her “better” digital self can star in movies—has consequences, not least of which are the troubling questions the film raises about how much actors are, already, virtual slaves of the directors, producers, and studios that call the shots in Hollywood. “The Congress” is a deeply flawed film—incredibly bold but dramatically undernourished—but that core idea will probably resonate strongest with those who don’t consider their craft something that can be reduced to programmable ones and zeros.
They won’t get much encouragement from “The Congress,” however, which paints a future where studios have developed even more unkind opinions concerning the disposability of stars. (According to the film’s grim prophecy, in 20 years the public will be able to eat or drink a favorite actor’s essence. Performers are no longer artists: They’re just totems to be absorbed by the ravenous throngs.) Needless to say, cinema takes a hit as well in the future dreamed up by the film. Meaningful movies have been completely replaced by recyclable trash featuring ageless digital replicas of bygone legends, who are now powerless to keep their image from appearing in dreck. That “The Congress” screened just down the street from the lavish Cannes premieres serves as some kind of warning about our priorities when it comes to determining what makes movies special. Star power is an attractive thing. But it can’t be the only thing.
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