Review: The Congress

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poster for The CongressAri Folman, director of the bleak animated history Waltz with Bashir, adapted a novella by acclaimed author Stanislaw Lem for the screen in the movie The Congress. Folman's take on Lem's The Futurological Congress is only vaguely true to the source material.  Instead of a male hero, we have actress Robin Wright... playing actress Robin Wright. If only this cinematic work didn't hold the talented actress back. While Lem's novella is (supposedly, I haven't read it) a black comedy, Folman's half-animated film is dark and troubling.

Bravo to the director for selecting an older -- by Hollywood standards, anyway -- actress to base this film around. Much is made of Wright's Texan background and decision to age naturally; actually, much is said about Wright, as she sits silently and takes criticism. To put it in terms today's teens will recognize, there is a lot of mansplaining going on here.

Conversations in the first half of The Congress happen to her, with men spouting monologues about their early lives or breaking down for her the mistakes she made in her career. The film opens to Wright quietly crying as her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) berates her for her faulty decision-making. These men want what's best for her, you see. They just want to profit off her as well.

Wright is convinced by her agent and studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston, John Adams, Children of Men) to have herself scanned so Miramount Studios will own her image for 20 years. During that period of time, she can't act, but can do whatever else she likes. She almost refuses, worrying that "the gift of choice" is taken from her if she signs. But at no point in this film does it ever seem that she is given any choice. She signs the contract because her son is ill, falling into the archetype of the weary, long-suffering mother. Wright's character has no desires or wants for herself, no power and no real agency.

We are not shown the immediately following years. The second half of The Congress is lush in colorful animation, as 20 years later, Wright enters an "animated sector" to talk with the studio about her contract. Her motivation is still her son*, with some personality visible as she contacts him upon arrival at a hotel for the Futurist Congress (this is the point Lem's inspiration finally enters the picture).

At this hotel, she suffers hallucination upon hallucination, helped along by a man (voiced by Jon Hamm) who worked on her scanned image for 20 years and became infatuated with her. He fell for her scanned image, as he supposes her to be; he hadn't known her actual self. Folman's film misses an opportunity here, treading very lightly on this theme that deserves more depth.

The Congress is utterly novel and visually striking. But this slowly-spun story, pinned on the central figure of this actress, doesn't trust Wright enough to allow any opportunity to form a definite character. She is what we are told she is, and that is all.

*never mind her daughter, who we only see in quick or far off glimpses in the animated sector, and who gets rare mention in the second part of the film.

[For a slightly different take on the movie, check out Mike's review from Fantastic Fest 2013.]