“Robin Wright, playing a fictionalized version of herself, agrees to be digitally scanned so her avatar can star in films indefinitely; 20 years later, this technology reaches an absurdly logical conclusion. Absolutely fascinating look at celebrity culture run amuck, much of it in surreal animation representing a hallucinogenic alternate world. Beautifully made by Ari Folman, thought-provoking, visually stunning, and genuinely poignant, with a great, bold performance by Wright. See it if you can.”
That was what I said last November, when I first saw The Congress as part of the Drafthouse theater chain’s Fantastic Fest. Perhaps it was the sheer wacky boldness of the film that caught me off guard and blew me away–I gave it a score of 89, a solid **** rating–but on returning to it, I see that, as good as its good parts are, it falls just short of greatness, largely because, amidst a science-fiction narrative which leaps down the rabbit-hole with often dazzling results, lies a convoluted plot and a view of Hollywood which seems inspired less by reality and more by other movies.
Spoilers. Kind of. Sort of. It’s hard to say.
Sometime around now, Robin Wright lives with her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) right by the grounds of LAX, where Aaron continually gets in trouble for flying his kites over the property line. He is suffering from a degenerative disease which is slowly depriving him of sight and vision. Wright, as reminded continually by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), has allowed her career to fall apart, thanks to missed roles and bad life choices. However, an opportunity presents itself when her former boss, Miramount Studios head Jeff Green (Danny Huston), asks her to let her actions and expressions be scanned into a computer, so that a digital avatar of herself can make films indefinitely.
Robin initially rejects this–one of the provisions of this contract is that she can never act again–but capitulates when she realizes that Aaron’s medical expenses will only increase with time. The film jumps ahead 20 years, and an older Robin travels to a secluded hotel for the “Futurological Congress”, which is in a “restricted animated zone”, meaning she must take a…well, let’s be honest, it’s a magic potion by any other name–to enter a phantasmagorical animated world where the normal rules do not apply. At this Congress, an announcement is made that a new potion has been developed which allows anyone to become anyone or anything that they desire.
Called upon to speak, Robin disparages this new development, arguing that people should embrace who they and the world truly are; she is forced off-stage, but an assassination follows which sends the whole Congress into chaos, and it turns out that a revolution has erupted, and Robin is rescued by Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm), who was her primary animator for 20 years, and things just get weirder from there.
Let me say right now that, while I don’t wholly agree with it, Slant Magazine‘s review of The Congress does an excellent of breaking down the issues with its basic premise. Basically, taken at face value, it is kind of absurd, and doesn’t really jibe with current trends–and in many ways, the film’s cultural sensibility is of 20, 30, 40 years ago. And there’s an issue I had with the film that Slant doesn’t really touch on.
Its portrayal of Hollywood doesn’t feel at all real. Jeff feels like the studio boss out of a million melodramas–piggish, slick in the most obnoxious way possible, treating actors like cattle and art like folly–while the studio system is represented mostly by a generic-looking hallway, a generic-looking office, and the scanning lab, with a geodesic dome of scanners and lights surrounded by computer banks. Admittedly, the scanning lab is a very nice set–and there are some fine sets elsewhere in the film–but in portraying Miramount Studios, the money seems to have run short.
The film just feels like it was made by someone whose only knowledge of Hollywood is from Hollywood films. Director Ari Folman has spent most of his career in the Israeli film industry (The Congress is, according to Wikipedia, a Franco-Israeli-Belgian-Polish-Luxembourgish-German co-production), and unless he saw a lot of Hollywood while Waltz with Bashir was scooping up awards in 2008-09, I question how much of the system he’s seen. Perhaps the name “Miramount” says it all (has a film about a fictional film studio ever given that studio a remotely plausible name?).
And the film really is kind of hard to follow at times; the overthrow, or whatever, of the Congress is particularly hard to follow, not only because the film’s reality at this point is rather suspect (it’s suggested a fair amount of what happens is Robin’s hallucination), but because the filmmaking, particularly the character animation, is so variable. Some characters are rich and expressive; others are grotesque and flat, like Bakshi at his worst (i.e., Cool World, which this film is in its weakest points reminiscent of–though never as depressingly inept). The initial scenes at the Hotel Miramount, the venue of the Congress, are particularly off-putting; later in the film, once one has adjusted to the style, there are some lovely sequences; Robin and Dylan making love in a truly fantastical fashion is a highlight.
But if it falls short when it takes on Hollywood, as a mindfuck fantasy, The Congress is often superior, both in the simple moments and the…well, the animated sex-pocalypse sequences. As regards the former, highlights include a monologue from Al intended to elicit the necessary emotions from Robin so they may be scanned. Al tells of how he began as an agent, representing a schoolmate with a vestigial tail, how in short order he was earning more than his father, how he came to represent Robin and knew her at her highest and lowest points. Keitel’s delivery and Wright’s reactions are alike spectacular, and the intermittent flashing and clicking from the scanner (a geodesic dome of bright white lights which is as creepy as it is cool) adds the right eerie, off-kilter touch. And the film’s end, where the celebrity culture animated trippy madness is finally cleared away in favor of focusing on Robin’s efforts to get back to Aaron, it becomes genuinely touching–the final moments are by far the most moving in the film.
And when the film goes mad (in the best way, at least), you get moments like the fascistic rally at the Congress, or the fantastical restaurant where celebrity caricatures–perhaps the real thing (Tom Cruise, never formally identified, appears a couple of times in the second half), or perhaps everyday people living their animated fantasies–mingle in a riot of color and allusion and strange wonder. That moment is followed by sudden, gut-punch revelation of what the world has become–of the reality behind the animated fantasy. In many ways, the third act is the best, as it truly feels like a step beyond the norm, like a plunge down the rabbit hole.
Folman’s direction is sometimes shaky (the first half particularly; also, the glimpses we get of the films Robin’s avatar stars in look less like films and more like what someone who’s only seen Zack Snyder films thinks films are like), and he clearly does not seek to tell a clean, clear story, but his sense of vision and ambition is heartening. His script, as noted, is also problematic at times (I should also note one strange scene where Robin is performing ear candling on Aaron–why this bit of pseudoscience was included, other than perhaps a weak jab at Hollywood mysticism, is anyone’s guess), but when it works, such as in Al’s monologue, it really works.
Obviously a great deal of credit must also go to animation director Yoni Goodman; while I don’t love all of the animation, the sheer scale of the project, the riotous use of color, and the sequences which are genuinely breathtaking command my respect.
The acting is generally quite strong. Wright’s career is actually going extremely well at the moment, and the strength of her performance shows why. However close the film’s Robin hews to her real personality, she is honest to the film’s reality, however bizarre–she never winks at the camera or plays up the meta aspects of the role, but shows a quiet, graceful strength in the face of her adversities, and in the final stretch of the film, conveys the sheer power of a mother’s love. A misjudged performance would’ve sunk the film, but Wright comes through swimmingly. (This is going to be one of my Awards’ best-ever years for Best Actress.)
As for the supporting cast, Keitel is a touch stiff at first, but his monologue is absolute dynamite, mixing a fatherly attitude and the sense of showbiz savvy a veteran agent requires. Given some of the films he’s made lately (The Last Godfather, anyone?) it’s refreshing to see him doing good work again. Huston can’t totally overcome the stereotypical nature of his character, but he has fun with the slimy, even dictatorial nature of the role. Gayle and Smit-McPhee are quite solid, though they ultimately have little to do. As the family doctor, who has an important role to play in both halves of the film, Paul Giamatti is his usual excellent self, a friendly, reliable, slightly quirky presence who you kind of wish could be your doctor. Hamm is fine, though he gets a little lost in the chaos at times.
David Polonsky’s production design makes up for its few weaknesses with some stunning work, not just in the animated sequences, but in the scanning room and the sequences near the end, whose nature I will not spoil, suffice to say they represent some of the better production design I’ve seen this year. Mandi Line’s costume design is equally effective, as is Antje Huchel’s makeup. Michal Englert’s cinematography is fine; the score has not stayed in my memory.
First I called it a masterpiece. Then I saw the flaws more clearly–perhaps too clearly. Maybe a third viewing will help me sort out my feelings regarding The Congress more fully. Maybe not. (I haven’t read the novel by Stanislaw Lem it was based on; apparently the adaptation is quite loose.) But while I have my reservations, I do recommend it; it’s the kind of freakily ambitious film that I’m inclined to recommend, especially when it does as much right as this one.