31st Jul2014

‘The Congress’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Sami Gayle, Michael Stahl-David, Michael Landes, Sarah Shahi | Written and Directed by Ari Folman

The-Congress-Wright

When a film is complete there are a number of different emotions one can experience. You can be supremely elated with the masterful work you just witnessed. Anger can overcome you when disappointment sets in due to the failure of meeting expectations. Perhaps when the final credits begin to roll you are left in a state of confusion not knowing what you just watched or how exactly you feel about it quite yet. After watching The Congress there is a strong possibility you will experience all those emotions and everything in-between.

Director Ari Folman’s last film Waltz of Bashir was for my money a masterpiece in every sense of the word with its tremendously unique visual style and its emotionally packed storytelling. Repeating that success, while most likely impossible, was something I was eagerly anticipating. The Congress  is a daring venture that  seamlessly melds live-action with  surreal animation. It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Boldness is personified by rich thematic context that is impossible to fully digest in only one sitting. Admiration aside, the messy execution induces a great deal of confusion as uncertainty lingers throughout. Appreciating The Congress is no issue, enjoying it do a great degree is where the problem resides.

Folman is clearly an undaunted filmmaker who scoffs at the idea of convention, and based on this film’s premise he appears to take issue with the current state of today’s movie business. In the film Robin Wright plays herself, or at least a version of herself.  She was a notorious actress with a promising career who decided to turn her attention away from acting and towards her family and ailing son. She is offered one last contract. This contract is not for a role but for her likeness. She will be digitally scanned so the studio can have a version of her to do with as they please. They will have an actress that will stay young and viable for generations upon generations. Wright only needs to agree to never act or perform in any way ever again. At first she refuses, but with the lack of job offers and her son’s condition worsening she reluctantly agrees.

Robin Wright is a rather inspired casting choice for this role. Although she has received more acclaim recently due to her work on House of Cards, based on her performance here she is an actress who has been underappreciated and underutilized for far too long. She brings an untethered honesty to her portrayal as she embraces taboo Hollywood topics like the costly effect age has on actresses. During the live-action portion her best moments are when she is simply allowed to react to her family, to the treatment of Hollywood executives, and to the troubled world to where she finds herself. When it switches over to animation it is her voice that becomes her tool. A tool she uses with great effect.

After Wright is digitally rendered—in a scene that is one of the film’s best.  Draped in a ridiculous get-up and standing in an oddly designed dome she traverses an assembly line worth of emotions in order to be properly captured. After that moment we quickly shift twenty years in the future where things have become even more bizarre. Due to advances in technology people can take a drug that allows them to hallucinate or possibly even transform themselves into animated versions of themselves or anyone they wish—whether it is a dream or a warped version of reality is a factor left to be answered.

Wright travels to one of the restricted animated zone and enters the Futurological Congress Hotel where reality is defined by the way you perceive it. She is there to renew her studio contract, but soon discovers the true chaos around her.  Here the animation shares some similarities with Waltz of Bashir but is far more bright and cheery with an art deco sensibility. There is this amalgamation of the slickness of Japanese anime, with the psychedelic sense of Yellow Submarine, the abrasive gruffness of Robert Crumb, and some Max Fleischer’s gravitas  just for good measure. Despite the flaws there is no denying the mesmerizing nature of this animation.

Ari Folman makes little doubt of what he is trying to say about the progression of movie culture. When you have an actor like scene chewing Danny Houston playing a slimy studio executive it is clear he is not a fan of the way business is structured. Satirizing Hollywood is one small aspect to this entire mishmash puzzle. Aspects of identity, celebrity culture, and the way entertainment is used as a distraction from more pressing issues are also explored. Deep down its emotional base centers on a mother’s devotion to her children and what it will drive her to do. With such an obtuse narrative there is an overload of thematic baggage. It is like that suitcase that is so brimming with material it is impossible to close properly. Ideas are being tossed and removed in order to focus on what you can so you can get to the desired location.

With Folman trying to say so much he neglects the fact he needs some form of a narrative to put all that subtext into. I am all for films that do not hold your hand and allow the audience to do some work, however the necessarily tools were not given to fully comprehend what Folman was trying to accomplish. Everything from terrorist attacks to assignations to surprising love affairs appear to happen for little reasoning. There are is a tremendous amount of interesting ideas. Having celebrity devolve to the point people are literally consuming it in the physical sense feels a lot more realistic than it should.  When the context that message is placed in is so ill-conceived the effect is limiting.

There is a strong possibility this is way ahead of its time and will only become more appreciated as time goes on. Presently it’s deeply flawed and poorly structured, yet endlessly interesting from beginning to end. In all honesty The Congress  is so teeming with concepts, theories, and off the wall sequences a review based on one viewing feels incomplete. This is something that should be experienced by any lover of film. Just tamper expectations and you may come out better than I did.

The Congress continues this year’s trend of movies that laugh in the face of convention. Director Ari Folman has a lot say he just cannot decide how to say it. There was an opportunity to make something great. That opportunity was just not fully realized.

*** 3/5

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