The Congress is part science fiction, part psychedelic dream-like animation and part Hollywood satire, with an overall tone of melancholy. Director Ari Folman, best known for the Oscar-nominated, animated war film Waltz with Bashir, adapted the screenplay from Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem's book The Futurological Congress. Lem's also the man behind the novel Solaris, which again, explains a lot about the feel of this story. It's like a big, yellow cake that makes you feel bad, but you keep eating it anyway. It has a lot of layers, man. And sometimes, it's good.
The film stars Robin Wright playing an alternative version of herself. In this reality, she was definitely Princess Buttercup and Forrest Gump's Jenny, but Netflix Presents doesn't exist yet so there's no mention of "House of Cards." She lives in an airplane hangar converted to a house with her kids, Sarah and Aaron. She's still beautiful as ever, but at 44, Hollywood is treating her like a chewed up piece of garbage. If only there were some way for the movie studio "Miramount" (love it) to digitally capture her likeness and really hold "Robin Wright" in its hands as a commodity forever and ever. This is mind-bending sci-fi that grapples with objectification, consumerism and the very nature of how we perceive reality, so yes, of course there's a way.
Wright's manager Al, played by Harvey Keitel in an unexpectedly great performance, urges her to take the money and sign over the rights of her likeness. The contract demands that she give up acting forever, so naturally it's a bittersweet moment. Wright concedes somberly, like a character out of 1984, but I don't get it. Nobody's holding a gun to her head; what is she thinking?
Anytime a woman has a severe neckline I think we want to say she gave a strong performance, but frankly, I found Wright a little wooden. Statuesque. Like if a coat hanger had teeth. Or it could be that the script was so concerned with juggling its many weighty issues through abstraction and visuals that it forgot to give its leading lady anything interesting to say. (Cate Blanchett was offered the role and turned it down, which might be an important clue.)
- “If only I could find that caterpillar with the hookah.”
Around the halfway mark, we jump forward 20 years to an aging but still svelte Wright on her way to a place called "The Congress," and now the film gets reinvigorated with animation. To enter this place, you sniff a vial of something up your nose and a few minutes later everything, including you, is a psychedelic cartoon. This terrifies me, which is sort of the idea. For Wright, events in this other world take on nightmarish characteristics that are puzzling and confusing until you eventually catch on that not everything she's experiencing is real.
The head of "The Futurological Congress" (Danny Huston) wants Wright to renew her contract another 20 years so that the cartoons can drink and eat her and take in her essence forever. Suddenly Wright has an opinion about the contract she's willfully signed and blurts it out into a microphone, causing a kind of psychedelic action sequence in which the rules are unclear and the stakes are unknown. There's some reason why Wright in particular is the only one for the job. It's unclear why that's the case, but there's a good chance none of this is real, anyway. At this point, it's better to feel out the plot instead of thinking about it.
Wright meets an animator named Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm) and the two of them navigate the made-up world together. They have a sex scene in a field of fire and flowers, since anything is possible. It's stunning to look at but kind of a missed opportunity to see these characters actually relax and enjoy themselves for a second. Instead we get somber, stoic lovemaking.
The film puts the whole celebrity-as-commodity message on the shelf at this point and now has something to say about how our reality is the product of our mind's invention. Our protagonist stops being "Robin Wright The Actress" and becomes a symbol for every person on the precipice of figuring out what's truly important.
I'd like to think there's a lot of depth and feeling buried in this film that might benefit from a second viewing. The animation does things to your brain and your heart and is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Perhaps the Roxy should consider handing out vials of futuristic chemicals to moviegoers as they enter the theater to get us through some of the film's more trying moments.
The Congress screens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 5–Sun., Sept. 7, and again Fri., Sept. 12–Sun., Sept. 14, at 7 and 9 PM nightly.