Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giammatti, Kodi Smot-McPhee, Jon Hamm, Sami Gayle
Director: Ari Forman
Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Robin Wright plays herself, or at least a variation of herself, in Ari Folman's narratively wonky, visually arresting, and always fascinating The Congress. It's a film that at one point features a kinky animated sex scene with background explosions where two lovers grow plant-like tentacles set to the earthy tones of the song "Forever Young", and that's not even the picture's most divisive element. Other potentially alienating bits include: a dictator-like studio executive played by a mugging Danny Huston, a world-weary agent (Harvey Keitel) prone to extended monologues about a young boy with a tail, Paul Giammati's old man beard, and scenes of Ralph Bashki-inspired acid trip animation. It's a doozy of a cinematic experiment, made all the more palpable by Folman's unwavering dedication to making the exact film he wants without noticeable compromises. Aside from the presence of Wright (whose work on TV's House of Cards has recently thrust her into the public conscienceless), and the critical success of Folman's first feature Waltz With Bashir (2008), the ambitious writer-director probably won't have much luck courting audiences that want a little narrative coherency to go along with their nightmarish sci-fi.
Loosely adapting Stanislaw Lem's 1971 novella "The Futurological Congress", Folman's picture begins with Robin Wright living with her children inside a refurbished airplane hanger, and having faded from the Hollywood spotlight, coming to terms with being a disposable relic in her mid 40's. Encouraged by Keitel's agent and Huston's smarmy studio head at "Miramount", Wright embarks on an odyssey of scanning her likeness into a computer database so that the studio can control and manipulate her image, as long as she agrees to never "act" again. The idea of celebrity, fame, performance, and Hollywood politics are cleverly skewered during the film's first live-action act, complete with characters launching into satirical monologues about the state of the industry. The tone during these early scenes ranges from goofy (Huston chomping on scenery), to emotionally heartfelt (Keitel's strangely affecting story about how he met Wright and exploited her for his own gain), but no matter how scattershot the tonal lurches seem on the surface, the film is never less than engrossing. Wright anchors the proceedings with a tough, tender, and wise performance, drawing on her own experiences in Hollywood to inform the film's emotional core, which also centers around the love for her hearing-impaired son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The fact that in real life Wright suffered a series of flops after the hugely successful The Princess Bride (a movie that gets a few nods here) is woven into Folman's narrative, and yet Wright's presence never becomes a meta in-joke. Even as other actors around her play up the artificiality of their characters, Wright always plays everything for real, and as a deconstruction of her career and a vicious take down of the studio system, The Congress is a pointed success.
In one of the film's most extraordinary scenes, Wright stands inside a huge orb lined with cameras where a technician scans her every emotion and facial expression into a computer. Wright's acting during this sequence, which is accompanied by that lengthy Keitel monologue, is a multilayered triumph. The way she goes from giddiness to fear to devastating sadness is incredible, and Folman frames everything with occasional flashes of light that gives it a haunting quality. These early scenes, though strange tonally, are fairly straightforward compared to the shift into animated weirdness in the film's mesmerizing second act. As things suddenly jump 20 years into the future, an aged Wright visits an "animated zone" where the upper class ingest their favorite movie stars through a liquid substance and where the world of celebrity, hallucination, and technology combine to create a nightmarish phantasmagoria. Even if the live-action moments felt stilted at times, there was a sense that Folman was building a satirical message concerning horrific consumerism and Hollywood as a vampiric wasteland of corporate greed. That this message never comes, or is at best muddled during outlandish flights of animated fancy and quasi-philosophical musings, can be read as either him trying to juggle too many ideas, or of an artist fully in control of his created universe.
Truthfully, what Folman has done here is create a wholly original piece of cinema that nods towards the Orwellian dystopia of Brazil, the faux reality landscapes of The Matrix, and the loopy animated surreality of The Yellow Submarine, but which never feels especially derivative. More than anything, The Congress comes off like a resentful fuck you to the money-hungry Hollywood studio system which continuously churns out brain-numbing dross meant to placate and desensitize. That it does this with such imagination, existential daring, and technical skill confirms Folman as the real deal, a filmmaker throwing caution to the wind in order to take audiences into new realms of perception.