Israeli Director Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir was considered as the first of its kind: A feature-length animated documentary (also the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). Albeit it also had animated dramatizations, which were certainly more interesting (and maybe even more convincing) than your average, cheaply staged live action dramatizations, but much of it consisted of recorded interviews which were rotoscoped and animated. Beneath all this trickery was a somewhat conventional and (at least in this reviewers opinion) not that remarkable documentary, but the style was a breath of fresh air and the main reason the movie was a big success on the festival and art-house circuit back back in 2008. Now, six years later, Folman has returned with The Congress, another unusual mix of animation and filmed material, though this time it’s a movie that’s half animated and half live-action.
The Congress was inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress (Lem also wrote the novel Solaris, adapted by both Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh into movies in 1972 and 2002 respectively) and tells a tale that’s somehow both simple and complicated. The simple version is that it’s about an washed-out actress, Robin Wright (or an alternate reality version of Robin Wright, played by herself), who gets an offer from a movie studio head (Danny Huston) to be “scanned” into a computer so she can be forever a young beautiful actress, that is to say the computerized version of her as the real Wright has to quit acting altogether. The film then jumps twenty years into the future to get to what it’s really about, a future in which most people live in alternate, animated reality. Ok, maybe not so simple.
The Congress is a very ambitious and unique film that tries to achieve a lot of things with one movie and succeeds in some ways. It does give you a fascinating look at a near future that in some ways might not to be so far from what it will really be like, at least ideologically, and it does so in a way that’s visually inventive and memorable. It makes some interesting points on the nature of celebrity and fame as well as asking questions about technology and human relations and how they could meld together.
But as full of ideas and ambitious as The Congress is it’s also rather difficult to tell how it all hangs together. The film starts out as some sort of meditation on the nature of fame and celebrity. We’ve got Robin Wright playing an alternative version of herself, in this world she’s a has-been who ruined her career (the real Wright has never really been a big star, more of a solid and respected actress who does ambitious and smart indie films rather than star vehicles and blockbusters, she’s more of an “actress” than a “movie star”) by making all the wrong choices and now has the choice of getting “scanned” into a computer before it’s too late (and she sells her image for “two cents”, though why she does that for so little is unclear). Then the films jumps ahead twenty years but by then the movie is nearly half over so it kind of feels like two films put together as it turns into a rather different movie.
In this future Wright attends a congress ( it’s rather unclear what the congress entails as it mostly seems to be one man yelling about a changing world to a massive hall of people, more like a political rally) which gets attacked by terrorists. Wright goes into hiding and starts to hallucinate after inhaling poisonous gas…even though she’s already sort of hallucinating as she’s in an animated world (she took a drug of some sort to enter the world).
So what we have is a future in which people take drugs and enter an animated world which is all their own (they make it up as they go along) to escape the bleakness and ugliness of the real world. But how that meshes with ideas about the nature of celebrity and fame is never really clear. Of course, movies are an escape and all that, but it can’t be that obvious, can it?
Obviousness is actually another problem with the film. A good example is a part of the movie where we realise our protagonists want to be young forever, and are living in an animated world where that is possible, but Folman seemed to think that wasn’t clear enough so he puts the song “Forever Young” on the soundtrack. Now that’s just treating the audience as complete idiots, don’t you have more respect for us than that, Mr. Folman?
Still, a mess of ideas is better than no ideas and Folman must be lauded for trying to do something unusual and different and it does make for an interesting and watchable film. The idea of living your whole life as an escape to another world and constantly reinventing yourself is certainly an interesting one (in a way the possibility for a life like this already exists, what with multiple online avatars people can create for themselves). But Folman never really gets the right tone, some of it is too sentimental, some of it is too heavy-handed and the movie as a whole just takes itself too seriously. It’s sombre when it should have been playful. There’s also a big subplot involving Wright’s deaf son which comes and goes and sometimes feels like it belongs in a different movie.
The actors can’t be faulted though, Wright is excellent as this alternate version of herself and Danny Huston is solid as yet another slimeball and he animates very nicely as well. And the there’s the always reliable Paul Giammatti who’s terrific as usual, playing Wright’s son’s doctor. Overall, the actors, the visuals and the ideas are enough to make The Congress a moderately enganging and mildy thought-provoking affair, but it doesn’t add up to very much as whole and is a bit of a mess. It’s a bunch of cool ideas in search of a coherent story.
The Good: This is film full of great ideas and even if doesn’t fully succeed the world still needs more movies like this, movies that dare to take a leap and do something a little crazy rather than play it safe.
The Bad: The way the film tries to convey its ideas is often either too obvious and on-the-nose (like the “Forever Young” bit) or just muddled and unclear.
The Strange: The wonderfully weird animated style, with “cameos” from Elvis, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Jones and Tom Cruise.