Ari Folman, the director behind the stunning animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, has delivered something altogether different with his latest, The Congress.
It’s two sort-of-connected movies in one. On one hand, it’s an effective satire of the current and future state of movies and acting. On the other, it’s an existential (and animated) meditation on identity, technology and life.
Both parts are good, but I was a little more interested in the first, live-action part, which deals with an aging actress getting a very strange offer.
Robin Wright, playing a fictionalized version of herself, is in her mid-40S, an age at which Hollywood normally starts turning its back on “B-grade” female stars. She’s never truly blossomed into the bona fide movie star her agent (Harvey Keitel) and studio head (Danny Huston) thought she would become based on her work in The Princess Bride.
The studio comes up with a plan that will return her to her youthful glory—and ensure that she will never need to truly act again: The executives offer Robin one final contract, which requires that her body and emotions get scanned for future use. The contract guarantees that she will never be portrayed as older than her early 30s, and that she won’t appear in porn, along with a few other conditions. In return, Robin can no longer appear in movies, plays, commercials, game shows, etc., unless they are Miramount projects. Her whole being will become the property of Miramount Studios.
Wow, right? This is a great premise for dark comedy, in which Wright is placed in all sorts of strange movies beyond her control. She rides off into the sunset with some big paycheck, and the acting profession, as we know it, dies.
Ultimately, that’s not where The Congress takes us. Instead, the film is more interested in messing with one’s brain regarding the overall state of humanity and identity, rather than just telling the story of actors and actresses losing their gigs.
After a mind-blowing sequence in which Robin is scanned into a computer, the action jumps forward 20 years, when her contract requires an extension. We see Robin in an action/sci-fi film in which she is blowing up robots. (Films at this time play on blimps in the sky rather than in theaters.) A trip to the studio now requires her to snort a hallucinogenic drug and become animated. She does this—and the movie delves into trippy, deep animation mode.
She attends some sort of bizarre, gigantic rally—sort of like an Apple event on animated steroids—during which the audience finds out Robin’s likeness can be consumed via their favorite beverages the next day. In other words, fans can actually become Robin rather than just watching her on big screens. She has become nothing but a product.
All of this is interesting, even when the film tries to go spiritually deep. In some ways, Folman can be faulted for passing up an opportunity for biting satire—but he actually does achieve biting satire for a good portion of the film. He just lets it go in favor of a more universal subject in the ambitious, animated second half.
Robin interacts with a bunch of virtual images, including those of Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. She also gets a love interest who looks a bit like Clive Owen, but is voiced by Jon Hamm. In both Robin’s “real” and animated worlds, the one constant presence is her ill son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his special kites. It’s hard to explain; you just need to see it.
Wright is extraordinary and positively luminescent in a film that questions her relevance in not only the acting world, but the world in general. Huston and Keitel provide good, nasty humor before the film goes animated/existential (although Huston’s likeness does appear as a villainous presence in the animation).
The Congress might be a bit of a head-scratcher, but it’s successful in much of what it attempts. It’s also the kind of showcase Robin Wright richly deserves.
The Congress is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.