Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman exploded into prominence in 2008 with Waltz with Bashir, an animated film that dealt with the Lebanon War, and with his latest film, The Congress, he tackles a mind-bogglingly surreal and multi-layered story, mixing live-action and animation into a wonderfully original science fiction tale. The Congress played as part of AFI Fest’s World Cinema series, which is fitting, because the story is a universal one that goes beyond place and country and into the realm of ideas and imagery. Adapted from the science fiction novel The Futurological Congress, written in 1971 by Stanislaw Lem, also the author of Solaris, Folman’s tale tells the story of the very real Robin Wright, playing herself in a world that looks very much like our own, but just a bit off, at least at first.
Folman is smart in that he lets us see only a microcosm of the present world, confining our scope to Wright’s home and the fictional Miramount Studios, making us completely unprepared for what is to come later in the story. Wright has left acting to take care of her children, Sarah and Aaron, who is played by The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee and has a disorder that is slowly taking his hearing and will more than likely eventually take his sight, as well. Her agent, played with a restrained grace by Harvey Keitel, brings Wright in to meet with Jeff, a ubiquitous studio head who is charming and smarmy all at once, and who offers her a one-time deal of a lifetime. Played by the excellent Danny Huston, Jeff is vocal, brash, hilarious, and sometimes downright mean. Robin is viewed as a damaged, delicate flower, well past her prime, though we see she is a strong, independent woman who is still more than a little afraid of what the future may hold. But, it turns out the future is already here, and the deal is for Robin to let Miramount Studios sample her, thereby creating a version of her that the studio will own and put into their movies, without Robin ever having to set foot on a set ever again, and legally not allowed to so anyway. Robin Wright the actor, the image, belongs to the studio, and Robin Wright the person is just a person, nothing more, nothing less.
If this sounds intriguing, and it is, and Wright, Keitel, and Huston deliver this first quarter of the film with such a balance between contained and vocalized emotions, and with some fantastic monologues, that it is pulls the chair right out from under you when the film moves into a more bold, wild science fiction direction twenty years later, when Robin visits the Futurological Congress, even though the whole story has been science fiction from the beginning. To go more in-depth on the plot at this point would be a huge disservice to you, and it would be far too involved and confusing anyway. Suffice it to say, The Congress is a film that you simply have to see to believe and understand, though that last part may actually take two viewings. I know I could use a second viewing. Once the story switches to animation, all bets are off, and the storytelling becomes more fractured as Robin, our guide, becomes embroiled in a battle between what is real and what is hallucination, her world breaking apart into possible surreal imagery. Oor is it simply futuristic reality, or both?
The Congress is a complex, creative, imaginative film, and the visual imagery is astounding. The voice work from Wright, Huston, and Jon Hamm is fantastic, and they bring their characters to vivid life in the animated world. This is a strong dramatic film wrapped inside a science fiction film, and both of these styles blend and blur together to create a powerful, emotional resonance that sometimes catches you unaware. Robin, even when she is adrift in the unknown, creates a rich, emotional character that you care about and want to see find her way to happiness. As realizations begin to seep in, questions are answered, but more questions are waiting just beyond the horizon, and a journey may only be a fraction of a larger journey. This film defies easy description, so I must stop trying before my attempts at deciphering my individual experience with the film taint your experience, and both of our ideas spiral into a rabbit hole of irreversible cerebral choices. That, right there, that is The Congress, and it is waiting for you to join. The invitation is open, and the only question is if you accept. Or have you already accepted and just don’t know it yet?