More than two decades after catapulting to stardom with “The Princess Bride”, an aging actress (Robin Wright, playing a version of herself) decides to take her final job: preserving her digital likeness for immortal stardom.
“A genius designer on an acid trip” is the way one character describes the futuristic animated universe of Ari Folman’s “The Congress,” which contains one of the most startling uses of the medium to come along in years.
Words can hardly do justice to the plethora of outlandish visuals populating this ambitious sophomore feature from the Israeli director of “Waltz With Bashir,” but they’re merely one piece of a larger puzzle. Folman’s beguiling project amounts to a stinging indictment of mainstream culture’s unending commodification. The director spent half a decade assembling his loose adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel, “The Futurological Congress,” and the work shows in both its stunning appearance and the extraordinary depth of insight paired with it. Folman uses beauty and wonder as vessels for rage.
Echoing the meta device of “Being John Malkovich,” Folman’s movie revolves around an actor playing a fictionalized version of herself — and in the process, delivering an incredibly heartfelt performance. Robin Wright appears in two modes: During the curious first hour, she struggles with her waning career, eventually agreeing to a digital experiment that will prolong her vitality indefinitely; during the nearly indescribable second half, which takes place 20 years in the future, the rotoscope style Folman first explored with “Waltz With Bashir” is subjected to a kaleidoscopic makeover. Bright colors and cartoonish figures borrowed from over a century of animation techniques populate each mesmerizing crowd scene to create a breathtaking sensory impact.
Goaded by conniving studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) — the mogul of a fictional studio slyly titled Miramount — to embrace an emerging technology that allows a digital replica of herself to take over her career, Wright is eventually consumed by this alternate persona. The rest of the world falls in line, abandoned by the trappings of an all-consuming new dimension built exclusively for profit motive. Has there ever been a movie so aggressive toward Hollywood power structures? From Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” to Robert Altman’s “The Player,” storytellers have constantly assaulted the studio system, but Folman makes its evils come alive with phantasmagorical effects that force viewers to see the argument from the inside out.
“The Congress” is harder to explain than experience, but its central conceits come hard and fast. It rails against commercialism with an absurdly far-fetched premise rendered in the bright palette of a Ralph Bakshi movie and a wandering surrealism that echoes “Naked Lunch.” Yet it’s also a wholly original and thoroughly surprising fusion of sensory overload and liberal philosophy bound to confuse and provoke in equal measures.
In the early live-action scenes, a committed Harvey Keitel (in a fleeting appearance that easily reaffirms his long-dormant onscreen talents) plays Wright’s compassionate longtime agent, who goads her into accepting the gig in order to rescue her career from the oblivion of middle age. Suffering from personal setbacks, particularly a disease ailing her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that may cause him to go deaf, Wright hesitantly accepts a contract that will allow some intangible machine to capture her every movement and sound in order to place her virtual self in countless movies for the next two decades. Literally selling her body out of desperation, Wright’s choice marks the first indication of the Folman’s ability to fuse outlandish allegory with bonafide emotion. The first act plays like a sci-fi take-off on “Sullivan’s Travels,” with despondent showbiz types accepting the inevitable need to sell out. But what comes next has no easy point of comparison.
In the future, Wright weaves across a desolate landscape in her sleek electric vehicle, arriving at “a restricted animation zone” where her entire surroundings suddenly morph into the trippiest display of ebullient cartoon graphics this side of “The Yellow Submarine.” In this world, a virtual space seemingly crafted by the ominous Miramount, devious agendas lurk around every corner. As the animated Wright wanders through an Orwellian environment with dashes of manga and Max Fleisher alike, she witnesses the fallout of the technology she signed off on years earlier: Her face plastered on blimp ads for terrible action franchises, Wright’s personality has been thoroughly co-opted by a devious agenda to turn everything into a profitable simulation; her very identity, she learns, may soon become a soft drink.
That’s only the tipping point for an unwieldy adventure that includes a perilous cartoon riot, Jon Hamm as an animated Wright fan and potential love interest, and her tragic hunt to find her missing child that stretches across more than one level of perception. No matter the difficulty involved in untangling the details, “The Congress” is a conceptually fluid missive against the corporatization of storytelling.
In another brief, memorable role, Paul Giamatti appears as a pessimistic doctor who predicts a cynical future in which movies depart from the screen and instead become internalized by the human body — sort of like the animation zone, where reality collides with the forces that conspire to control it. In this grim future, capitalism has corrupted the foundations of human consciousness. “Movies are old news, remnants of the last millennium,” says Miramount’s monstrous overlord.
Folman answers that bleak assertion with this spectacular achievement, an ode to wonders of cinematic invention. Wright naturally maintains an intimate screen presence, appearing in tears during the first shot and never looking entirely at ease even before she transforms into a line drawing. Yet it’s the sheer bravura of “The Congress” that carries it from scene to an empowering degree. In the process of dreading the death of cinema, Folman contributes to its continuing ability to see the world in new ways. Beneath the anger, “The Congress” offers hope.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire, May 17, 2013.
Ambition markedly outstrips achievement in The Congress, a visionary piece of speculative fiction that drops the ball after a fine set-up. Director Ari Folman follows his breakthrough 2008 feature Waltz With Bashir with a different style of animation applied not to a historical war story but to a look at an alternative future based on transfigured real people. Initial viewer curiosity gives way to impatience and finally ennui in the film’s second half, spelling lukewarm commercial prospects for this commendable but shortfalling exploratory drama.
Based on the 1971 novel The Futurological Congress by the late, prolific Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, who also authored Solaris, this is a venturesome and provocative piece with a great deal on its mind. At its most reductive core, it concerns show business and actors and how the shelf-life of performers could, in an insidious but not at all unimaginable way, be made unlimited. Audiences interested in the future of entertainment and Hollywood dwellers above all will find the first 55 minutes, the film’s good part, irresistibly intriguing.
In a striking opening, veteran agent Al (Harvey Keitel) upbraids his longtime client Robin Wright(playing herself) for making nothing but “lousy choices, lousy movies, lousy men.” She also made two smart, smartass kids, punky, tomboyish daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and sensitive, fiercely intelligent son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is suffering the gradual loss of key senses, especially hearing.
Now in her mid-40s, Robin gets what she’s told will be her final job offer, to become a “scanned actress” so that all of her emotions, movements and characteristics will become technologically preserved and therefore available for all time. Miramount executive Jeff (Danny Huston) assures her that, this way, she’ll be “young forever,” even if her career choices and “performances” will be created by computer technicians rather than by herself.
After posing many plausible objections, Robin finally submits to the scanning process, which takes place in a room-sized geodesic dome arrayed with tubes and white lights. But the sequence is made memorable not by technology but a terrific monologue delivered by Keitel, who opens up a wide range of emotions in Robin by relating a wonderful story about how his character’s future as an agent was signaled by an event in the Bronx when he was ten.
The film’s first half is full of pregnant ideas about how rapidly changing technology could effect entertainment, creativity, corporate control, free will, selling out, identity, medicine and other endeavors. Folman’s live-action direction is confident and attractive and if the film had continued in the same vein to follow up on the ramifications of Robin’s decision in the “real” recognizable world, it might have stood a chance of being more satisfying.
But midway through and with a jump of 20 years, we enter the “animation zone,” in which “Robin,” now a white-haired drawn figure, attends a Futurist Congress populated by nothing but other animated characters, some of them famous (John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Che, Picasso, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson are among the many recognizable faces) and some transformed into animalistic creatures that would be right at home in any animated film.
Within minutes, the air gets sucked out of the film in a palpable way, as a conventional divide is set up between these fantasy lives (“Robin” is the star of a popular action series called Rebel Robot Robin) and the real lives left behind. Jettisoning a connection to anything concrete, Folman, who started his career in documentaries, loses his narrative moorings, allowing The Congress to hop, skip and jump between familiar visions of totalitarian rule, opiated masses and insulated, technology-controlled lives, and movie references that include The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon.
Abandoning the “cut-out” style that was so striking in Waltz With Bashir, Folman here harks back to earlier, more traditional animation forms that perhaps aspire to the 1930s Fleischer model but, in the event, more closely resemble the psychedelic aspects of “Yellow Submarine” and the work of Richard Williams. Plants and flowers grow out of buildings, shapes flow and morph from one configuration to another, none of it particularly attractive or enchanting. The themes and concerns that set the film’s agenda early on are still present but recede, just as Robin’s kids take a back seat to the undynamic character of the animator (Jon Hamm) who has been assigned to “Robin” for two decades and has, of course, fallen in love with her.
Despite the second-half fizzle, it’s easy to admire the enterprising nature with which Wright, who also co-produced, jumped into such an adventurous project, which seriously confronts the career parameters faced, especially, by beautiful actresses. Keitel is the best he’s been in quite a while, Huston has a grand time representing the next generation of studio bosses and Smit-McPhee and Gayle are captivating as the kids.
Shot in California and Germany, the film has a strong look in the live-action scenes. Max Richter’s score is another solid asset.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter, 16th May 2013.