After redefining both documentary filmmaking and animation with his acclaimed Oscar-nominated ‘Waltz With Bashir’ (2008), Israeli director Ari Folman has turned his unique talents and vision to a narrative film that defies logical description. In similar ways that his artistry blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, so too does the story at the heart of his latest epic, ‘The Congress’, with actor Robin Wright at the beating heart of it, not only as its lead but as its central character.
Robin Wright was once the It-Girl in Hollywood, but bad career choices have left her as box-office poison, mostly unemployed and supporting her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slowly going blind. Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) brings her an offer from Miramount Studios head Jeff Green (Danny Huston), who tells Robin of a change swiftly moving through the industry, where studios buy an actor's identity, scan them into a computer and use them at their will, the catch being they can never work again. With no option left, she takes it. This first act of the film works as a beautifully-pitched piece of speculative fiction and offers it a solid grounding for where it is about to go, which is far more philosophical and much harder to describe. Twenty years later, Robin’s identity is now a major franchise, and she is invited to speak at the Futurological Congress, where participants are put in an hallucinogenic state and exist in an animated landscape. The world has moved to a point where experience is paramount and the primary industry is controlling those experiences. Robin is looking the future in the face and begins to question just how far this has gone.
It sounds like a head-trip, but this isn’t even the start of it. The Futurological Congress is an animated sight to behold, filtering a kind of Looney Tunes-esque insanity through Folman and animation director Yoni Goodman’s unique fluid style. It’s a world that defies logic, size, gravity and explanation, rendered in vivid and explosive colours. It isn’t a far step away from the French animated classic ‘Fantastic Planet’ (1973) except brimming with pop culture references. As a whole, ‘The Congress’ is a film very much rooted in our reality, continuously referring to real people, places and events, either explicitly or suggestively. It’s overflowing with ideas and social commentary, so much so that at times the intellectual content can be as overwhelming as the visuals. What makes the film work so well though is the stability of its first half before entering the hallucination of the second, giving a strong narrative and character base before jettisoning off into the skies. Even in the transition from live-action to animation, Folman maintains a level of consistency, so that the transition doesn’t jolt as much as you would expect.
It also helps that the central performance from Robin Wright is as accomplished and fearless as it is. It takes a lot of guts to submit yourself to this level of personal interrogation, playing yourself in a fictionalised reality, but Wright approaches it with the same grace and ferocity we’ve come to expect from her. It’s a staggering performance, even in animation. The supporting cast is also terrific, especially Keitel, who hasn’t been this good in years, and Huston is as wonderfully slimy as Smit-McPhee is quietly heartbreaking. There’s also great work from Paul Giamatti and Jon Hamm. A film like this would never work without the full commitment from its cast, and Folman has been blessed in this instance with a tremendous ensemble.
‘The Congress’ is about as strange a film you are likely to find, but also about as wildly intelligent or imaginative as well.
‘The Congress’ is about as strange a film you are likely to find, but also about as wildly intelligent or imaginative as well. Much of it is hard to explain or fully understand, but that doesn’t make it any less worth your time. It’s a singular, beautiful vision from Ari Folman, and the kind of film you’ll want to return to often to keep dipping into its mysteries. It’s not for the casual cinema buff, but for those willing to step through its looking glass, this is one hell of a trip.
PICTURE & SOUND
Madman have released ‘The Congress’ on DVD only, and while it would have looked spectacular in high definition, there may not be as much interest in the release here as there has been overseas. Apart from the usual loss of detail and clarity, the 1.85:1 transfer still captures the beautiful colours in the animated sequence and the washed-out muted beauty of the live action sequence. There’s also a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that does its job well, with Max Richter’s gorgeous score, the vibrant sound design and the dialogue all in balance. As far as DVD presentations go, there’s little to complain about here.
Unfortunately there are no special features offered with the release. International releases do include a commentary with Folman, Goodman and production designer David Polonsky, which would have been a welcome addition here.