Israeli director Ari Folman garnered worldwide acclaim for his incredible animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir, and has now returned to western audiences with his bafflingly ambitious live-action/animation hybrid The Congress.
While Waltz gave us a sobering dose of reality, The Congress is unapologetically abstract, fusing the absurd meta concepts of Charlie Kaufman with the fluid imagination of Hayao Miyazaki. Constantly evolving, The Congress gradually transitions from a grounded story about an actor at the end of her career, to a ponderous sci-fi story and finally to utterly surreal art house. While the film’s character-focus and overall narrative are lost as it continues to grow and change, The Congress remains a challenging and thought-provoking journey with questions about reality, identity and mortality that will linger long after the credits roll.
Since The Congress is an ever-changing entity, the film is best explained by splitting it into its three distinct sections. The first begins and ends with a teary-eyed Robin Wright (playing a twisted version of herself) as her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) lays out the reality of her dwindling marketability. Poor career choices and choosing to spend time with her children (one of whom suffers from Usher syndrome and is gradually losing his hearing and eyesight), have left Wright with only one offer left to her; for Miramount Studios (see what they did there?) to digitally scan her and use her likeness to star in whatever upcoming films they see fit.
This first third of the film is easily the most digestible, dipping our toe into the complex questions The Congress will soon explore by giving us a grounded and personal framework. The shadow of the film’s later headiness looms overhead, but for the most part this section is about its characters. As is perhaps to be expected, Wright shines as she wears this pessimistic take on her own career with strength and conviction. The inevitability of Wright’s situation clearly weighs on her, but her’s is a character that accepts her reality with bravery and grace. The sub-textually heavy dialogue can sometimes delve into the indulgent, but Wright’s journey and interactions with her family and agent give The Congress a heart that will prove critical as we move into the film’s next phase.
Jumping 20 years into the future, the second phase of the film is where things get crazy. From here Folman merges his meta story about the entertainment industry into an adaption of Stanilsaw Lem’s 1971 sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress, supplementing the novel’s dictators with a dystopian version of a Hollywood studio. Hoping to renew her now expired contract, Miramount invites Wright to Abrahama City, a strict animated zone where individuals take chemicals to enter a shared illusionary reality. Going forward The Congress is almost entirely animated, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Stills of the film’s cartoonish makeover simply do not do it justice. While character designs can be quite crude, the animation is breathtakingly flowing and imaginative. A steam-punk/Orwellian design sets the scene and plays out like a western sci-fi take on Spirited Away.
It’s not at all uncommon for excellent actors to turn in haphazard voice-acting work, but thankfully the performances here are almost universally spot-on. Wright in particular feels just as alive as an animated avatar as she did in the film’s live-action phase. This authenticity to the animated cast is important as it’s here the film begins to distance itself from its narrative focus and starts concentrating on its grand ideas and musings. No doubt many viewers will be turned off by the jarring jump to animated art-house, but those willing to take part in the conversation will ease in as the film again jumps forward in time and backward in comprehensibility.
In the third and final section of the film, form and identity are almost totally absent from the population of the hallucinatory reality. With the world becoming a collective consciousness and everyone in it able to transform into whoever or whatever they want on a whim, the structures and limitations that define us have all but vanished. Life has become a surrealist dream where anything is possible and nothing matters. This is science fiction in its purest form, an impossible thought experiment that questions our definitions of self, perspective and reality. But with these revelations, The Congress loses its own personality in exchange for Folman’s desires. It’s a fitting trade, given the subtext, but the emotional component The Congress first hooks you with becomes a distant memory in this section, alienating those less invested in the film’s existential questions. Folman tries to combat this by grounding the film’s climax and recalling its character-driven opening. While it’s a lovely sentiment and a clever way to bring the film’s disparate phases together, the execution is shoddy and only proves to highlight how far the film has moved from appealing to the heart to appealing to the brain.
The Congress is an intrinsically divisive film. There’s immediately people you will want to share it with and others you’d be embarrassed to make sit through. For your own enjoyment, it depends entirely if you want a film to wow you as you watch it, or keep you awake at night thinking about. The fading narrative and characters may be a deal breaker for many, but if you want a movie that’s going push you and give you something you’ve likely not experienced before, The Congress is an utterly fascinating film that cements Ari Folman’s standing as a director to look out for.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10