‘The Congress’: The identity, politics of film receive literal new look from ‘Bashir’ creator
Ari Folman, who held audiences rapt with his Oscar-nominated, animated tale of an Israeli incursion into Beirut, “Waltz With Bashir” (2008), goes in an entirely different direction with this wide-ranging contemplation about individualism, control, ageism and the dynamics of Hollywood.
Being different is how Folman described his goal with “The Congress” at the Cannes Film Festival this year, but in reality the two films have much in common. Both rely heavily on dream sequences and alter-realities to convey horror and meta themes, and both are animated in the same flat, textual style that is elegant, spare and cartoonish all at once.
Folman’s latest takes its cue from the Stanislaw Lem novel “The Futurological Congress,” and doesn’t really get to any of the plot elements or themes of the satirical 1971 future-scape until it transitions into an animated format about halfway in. The preamble is a pat but piquant affair with actress Robin Wright playing a fictionalized version of herself. The faux Robin lives a strange yet cozy existence in a converted DC-9 hanger on the perimeter on an airport. Her son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for unexplained reasons enjoys flying a boxy red kite over the fence and into regulated airspace, which draws the ire of authorities and two vicious German Shepherds – an occurrence that bodes far heavier in the animated future world. Aaron too is ill and losing his hearing, a condition that opens Wright up to suggestion from her agent (a needling Harvey Keitel) to undertake the ultimate sellout.
Those familiar with Wright know of her roles in “The Princess Bride” and “Forrest Gump,” but her career never quite took off like it could have, in part because she was too fickle and selective and in part because that’s just how the biz goes. In Folman’s universe that’s the rub (and a cheeky play on reality akin to “Being John Malkovich”) her agent lays on her, professing she can finally be the star she never was and take care of Aaron as well.
The deal, which will essentially forge Wright as a timeless, ageless superstar with an unlimited work capacity and deep bank account, requires her to stop acting and let the studio clone her into a virtual being for their use. What they want is her every emotion, every facial expression, even how she orgasms. The cloning process, which happens on the lot of Miramount studios (a great play on Miramax and Paramount, and you can’t help but wonder if the shifty studio boss played by Danny Huston isn’t a sly spin on Harvey Weinstein), feels like a scene right out of the sublime 2012 French film “Holy Motors” with the end goal something like Andrew Niccol’s tepid 2002 “S1m0ne” in which a studio tries to avoid the mercurial nature of the human ego by replicating its complicated star virtually. It’s nothing new; Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee who died tragically on the set of “The Crow,” completed that 1994 film posthumously through body doubles and digital renderings.
The notion of avatars doing for us what we can’t do given time and aging constraints would seem a pretty decent deal: Stay at home and chill while the virtual you makes a buck. That idea, for better or worse, never really gets explored in “The Congress.” After the “personality capture” session we catch up with Wright some 20 years later en route to addressing a gathering of Lem’s “Congress” in a toon-town called Abrahama City. That’s where we go all pastel, surreal and gonzo. What unfolds is like a blenderized whirl of “Heavy Metal” and (the animated segments from) “The Wall” if orchestrated in a subliminal dreamy haze by the great Hayao Miyazaki.
In the film’s real world, Wright’s digitized doppelgänger has become a superstar, ruling the box-office with a “Transformer”-worthy franchise and spouting vapid, studio-endorsed worldviews; while down in Abrahama City, the real (now cartooned) Wright struggles to regain her identity and goes against the congress’ promoters, who want to turn her into a drug so all people can be Robin Wright if they want to be.
On the whole, how “The Congress” works for you depends more on your proclivities and patience than your receptiveness to the mixed format. The inclusion of the son’s illness and Keitel’s hawking agent (with the exception of a very creepy mood elicitation during the cloning process), while necessary plot points, detract more than they add to Folman’s plumbing of the not-so-brave new world. To think of “The Congress” as a personal experience more like Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” would be most apt. Wright, brave and willing to give of herself, delivers a dignified performance that holds the two ends together with confidence. “The Congress” might not be a gathering point for everybody, but if you let it wash over you and allow its ideas and ideals to sink in, you might just find yourself pleasantly haunted by profound ditherings and what ifs for days to come.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.