When writer-director Ari Folman made his international breakthrough thanks to the impressive animated-documentary Waltz wih Bashir, he left himself a tough act to follow. Six years on, Folman responds to expectations with his new film The Congress. It’s a satire of modern Hollywood, a live-action/animation hybrid, and based on a dystopian novel by Stanislaw Lem (whose most famous book Solaris has twice been adapted for the screen). In other words, it’s not short on ambition.
The Congress stars Robin Wright as herself, or at least as an actress called Robin Wright. After early hits like The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, her career and bankability have taken a downhill turn (she’s made bad choices in films and men we’re told of Sean Penn’s ex…). This prompts her studio (cheekily named ‘Miramount’) and its devilish boss (Danny Huston) to offer her a 20-year contract and a hefty sum, for the rights to ‘scan’ her into their computers. This new technology is able to perfectly reproduce actors digitally, making her a computer puppet and physical acting obsolete. Miramount will use her CGI persona in whatever films they wish to make, while in exchange, the flesh-and-blood Robin must never appear in public again. Initially reluctant, Robin signs the contract after persuasion from her agent (Harvey Keitel) and because her new freedom will allow her to look after her ill son.
The first half is a tad high on exposition and the dialogue occasionally off, but Robin Wright deserves credit for taking on a role requiring courage and a good sense of (self-deprecating) humour. However, the second half is what makes this film truly stand out, when, suddenly, it turns into animation. Now 20 years later, Robin has been convoked to a Miramount congress to renew her contract. Only, in this futuristic world, entertainment consumerism has been pushed to even greater extremes. Almost everyone is under the influence of chemical drugs enabling them to be whoever they want to be, and live in a perpetual state of escapism – represented in the movie through animation.
This animated section, an odyssey into a psychedelic nightmarish world with a cartoon Robin Wright as our perplexed guide, contains both the film’s best and worst aspects. The animation evokes the classic 1930s style of Max Fleischer, at times is extremely trippy and surreal, and creates some truly memorable images. Using it to portray this chemically-induced fantasy world where people go to hide from reality (which is displayed in live-action) is an ingenious idea.
However, this animated second half is also when the film unravels into a vertiginous array of themes. Celebrity, identity, technology, aging, the future of society and entertainment… these themes and more all crop up at a frantic pace. The film itself can’t keep up, and it soon loses focus. Where one idea or metaphor would suffice amply, Folman cannot resist the urge to pack in three or four. Thus even Robin Wright, who becomes increasingly difficult to care about as the plot gets so dense, is at once an aging actress fighting for privacy, a mother in search of her beloved son, and, when an unexpected animated love interest enters the picture, a woman in love. These many strands, together with the numerous themes around them, sadly never coalesce into a coherent whole.
Like all good sci-fi, The Congress is packed full of visionary ideas, but a more streamlined second half would have given the film and its ideas more room to breathe. Some viewers are likely to be left disoriented by the dizzying second half, while others (fans of the novel for instance) may find the more character-driven passages too clunky. Nonetheless, Folman’s ambition is admirable, the animation very enjoyable, and The Congress is still a stimulating enough ride to forgive the flaws.
(Israel, Germany, Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, 2013)
Dir: Ari Folman