Dir: Ari Folman
Wri: Ari Folman
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Well, you have to respect Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman for The Congress, his follow-up to the award-winning documentary Waltz with Bashir. It’s a complete mess… but a bold and inventive one that you can’t help but admire.
Robin Wright plays a fictional version of herself, a fading star with a reputation for being unreliable, who is offered digital immortality by Miramount Studios (see what they did there?). Wright will have her entire personality and image digitised for a considerable sum, under the contract’s caveat that while her computer-generated representation will go on to feature in numerous blockbusters she herself can never physically act again.
The film then jumps twenty years to Abrahama City, a future where not only is Wright’s image used in a franchise of successful sci-fi movies called “Rebel Robot Robin”, but the population uses chemicals to enter an addictive “animated state” during which they are able to transform themselves into whatever form they desire. When Miramount offers Wright a new contract, one that will replicate her essence into a chemical drink allowing her fans to consume and become her, things get even more surreal…
The Congress is a film of two distinct halves, both of which are individually fascinating even if they don’t quite hold together in the same film. Robin Wright’s performance is superb, but the fantastical situation surrounding her family (who for some reason live in an aircraft carrier) felt out of place given Folman’s choice to reflect on the actress’s real-life filmography as candidly as he does. Harvey Keitel and Danny Huston do their trademark thing to Folman’s initially inert direction, and are fine, but the film jettisons most of this cast in the second act, only truly returning to its course in the last fifteen minutes.
Fortunately, there’s The Congress‘s animation, which has more life to it than the live action segment, I suspect intentionally so. Prior to seeing the film, I’d read numerous reviews noting such influences as Robert Crumb, Max Fleischer, René Laloux and Ralph Bakshi, and wondered just which critics were more accurate in their comparisons. The answer turned out to be all of them – the film’s animated portion is breathtakingly eclectic, depicting a world in which people can adopt an art style appropriate to their inner character.
The Congress is an oddly dichotic affair, then. It’s relentlessly unpredictable and forever fascinating, and yet Folman’s script never quite engages at the same level as his engrossing visuals and ideas. For all of the film’s prescience, it perhaps lacks the focus or wit (the wonderful animated caricatures of icons such as Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Tom Cruise are strangely dour) to say anything particularly profound.
Despite my issues with the film, I enjoyed it and feel that my opinion of it will improve on subsequent viewings. It’s undoubtedly unique, and anyone intrigued by either the premise or the fantastic retro animation should definitely check it out. The Congress won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I’m sure that mass appeal was never Folman’s intention. I’d be genuinely surprised if this film doesn’t amass a cult following over the next few years.
The Congress is out today, from StudioCanal. Extras include ‘The Animation Process’ featurette.