The ambition of The Congress is such that it almost makes a convincing argument for filmmakers following their mad visions wherever they take them, even if they haven’t worked out crucial specifics like story and character. Moving from the personal and experimental nature of his last film, the documentary Waltz With Bashir, director Ari Folman has again gone bold. Even when The Congress falters, which is far, far too often, the conviction of his approach keeps convincing you that he’ll pull things together shortly. Too bad that never quite happens.
Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, the science-fiction author responsible for Solaris, The Congress begins with a juicy premise, one that isn’t explored as richly as it could be. Robin Wright plays a slightly fictionalized version of herself who’s an aging actress that Hollywood has all but given up on after a string of flops. Just in time, a studio head (Danny Huston) offers her an opportunity to revitalize her career. It’s an odd offer, however: She’ll be paid a handsome sum so that she can be digitized, her every trait, quirk and facial expression perfectly preserved from when she was in her early 30s. If she agrees to the deal, she herself can never act again, but the computerized version of her will live forever in future film roles. Wright is initially reluctant, but when her ailing son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) requires expensive medical attention to attend to his rapidly deteriorating eyesight, she decides to sign the contract.
What transpires is, at first, a weak-tea Hollywood satire, toothlessly mocking soulless entertainment lawyers and the vulgarity of the studios’ bottom-line mentality. But soon it becomes clear that Folman is ultimately hunting bigger game. Fast-forwarding 20 years into the future, The Congress reveals what the repercussions are for Wright’s decision—not to mention exposing the ghastly state of a society in which movie stars are little more than avatars able to be worn by anyone. The future sequences are animated while the contemporary scenes are live-action, and as with Waltz With Bashir, Folman mixes between the two formats to create a film that can be piercingly real but also wildly dreamlike.
Unfortunately, this playful yet serious and occasionally quite moving drama bites off far more than it can chew. In general, ambitious filmmaking is to be celebrated and encouraged, but ambition without coherence is another matter entirely. Whether it’s the distractingly hammy performances from some of the supporting cast—Harvey Keitel as Wright’s agent is particularly tone-deaf—or the unfocused stab at different thematic concerns, The Congress is a striking experience that lacks the discipline to pull all of its ideas together.
Still, you may find yourself forgiving much of what’s wrong with The Congress simply because of those ideas, which extend from the film’s horrific portrait of the 2030s to Folman’s willingness to go after grand emotional crescendos again and again near the finale. (And Wright is sympathetic in an affecting, tongue-in-cheek parody of her career.) Watching The Congress, one gets the impression that Folman knows exactly what he’s after: a wildly euphoric treatise on identity, celebrity, filmmaking, family, revolution, utopia, antidepressants—you name it. The movie may ultimately be a failure, but it’s not an embarrassment. Far from it: This is a noble, wonderfully outlandish misfire whose very high points are only diminished by its very, very awkward and unconvincing moments. Lots of movies will be better this year than The Congress. But few will put on such a show.
Director: Ari Folman
Writers: Ari Folman (screenplay); Stanislaw Lem (novel)
Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston
Release Date: Screening in the Director’s Fortnight at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival