DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman
FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, John Hamm, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti
PLOT: Robin Wright has reached the worst time for actresses: middle age. The roles have started to dry up, and her reputation for being particular has not helped at all. She is persuaded to accept a deal from Miramount Studio to have herself digitally scanned and her image, kept young, used by the studio for its projects for 20 years, in exchange for a hefty sum of cash and agreeing to never act again.
20 years later, on the contract’s expiration, she attends The Congress—a studio convention featuring new technology allowing people to transform themselves into animated avatars. The studio wants to extend their deal with Robin, which would allow anyone to virtually “be” her.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:: This is a visual and intellectual feast for the eyes and mind, in a way that is graspable for the average viewer. Plus, there are so many visual references in the animation, it will reward multiple viewings.
COMMENTS: For all of the trippy mind-bending wonderfulness of The Congress —and for those who enjoy weird films, there’s quite a bit to like—it’s the Hollywood satire and visual allusions (to Max Flesicher, Bakshi [in spirit and ‘tude], Kubrick, and lots of others) that makes it special. The most arresting visual image is the opening close up of Robin Wright, sans makeup, as her agent (Harvey Keitel, in a notable supporting role) berates her for her previous career choices. It’s probably the bravest performance you’ve seen from an actress in a LONG time.
The movie uses Stanslaw Lem’s 1971 novel “The Futurological Congress” as the starting point to get into the weirdness, but it takes a good half hour to set that up and provide the necessary grounding. Underneath the bitter satire and trippy visuals, The Congress is ultimately about identity, and how it becomes another commodity to be bartered—at first, hesitantly by Robin, and ultimately as a way of life for the populace.
The Congress is now available from Drafthouse Films via Video on Demand starting July 24 and is scheduled for theatrical release August 29.
ALEX KITTLE ADDS: Positioning its characters between the contrasting poles of heartbreaking realism and completely bonkers fantasy, The Congress juggles a multitude of ideas but manages to present a fairly cohesive story. By grounding his tale with a real-life protagonist, the actress Robin Wright, Folman is able to gradually incorporate stranger and stranger concepts, with the final destination barely resembling the starting point. The world he creates is definitely weird, distinguished by its ever-fluctuating landscape and psychedelic colors, populated by people who are limited only by the reach of their imaginations. The animation retains the superficial sheen and flatness of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, but the visual style varies, overwhelming the viewer with different aesthetics and effects, conveying the befuddlement felt by Wright when she enters this unfamiliar animated world.
The story is all over the place, jumping across decades at different points to reflect the extreme changes in society, and attempting to simultaneously focus on Wright’s personal experiences of caring for (and later trying to locate) her son as well as the structure of this crazy future. But somehow it all mostly works, with Wright remaining strong as the protagonist whose confused perspective comes to mirror the audience’s. The whole thing is an emotional experience, weird and funny and satirical and honestly rather touching. I would nominate it for the List, primarily for the jarring and imaginative cartoon shift that takes place halfway through.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“So while The Congress might seem a hallucinatory trip through a cityscape of the imagination, it also allegorises our own very real relationship with the mythopoeic worlds of cinema (from which this film quotes with relentless, voracious postmodernism) or of the internet.”–Anton Bitel, Grolcsh Film Works (festival screening)