*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience.
The Congress, Ari Folman’s follow-up to his brilliant debut feature, the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, starts rather normally. The opening shot is a staggeringly beautiful close-up of a tearful Robin Wright (playing an imaginary version of herself) as her agent Al’s (Harvey Keitel) voiceover informs us that her career is in tatters. Robin has hit the film industry’s glass ceiling age of 45 and with an already troubled reputation as a difficult actress to work with, her options are quickly dwindling. Al is trying to convince her to sell her digital image rights to the Miramount studio headed by Jeff (a remarkably greasy Danny Houston). This would mean that the studio will use her scanned image to create characters in future films in exchange for a fat paycheque and her right to ever act again.
Everything about this opening setup is promising, signifying a film that is aware of the fears and tensions within the entertainment industry. The Congress is ripe with smart ideas and astute observations about the challenges that technology presents to the men and women active in cinema. It also knows the industry’s inherent sexism and the possibilities that the medium present to its practitioners in the modern age. Unfortunately, Folman doesn’t prove as adept at creating fantasies as he was at recreating realities in Waltz with Bashir, leaving with a wild, messy film filled to the brim with missed opportunities.
Digital scanning isn’t the only revolutionary change in acting. Twenty years later, when Robin (or her image) has become the world’s most famous action star, Miramount introduces another futuristic technology: a small liquid that transforms anyone who takes it into anybody they want to be in the form of an animated avatar. The idea is advertised as an equal opportunity revolution, a serum to eliminate egos and give everyone the chance to be a star. The Congress showcases these avatars in a hallucinatory, animated world that Robin describes as “designed by a genius on an acid trip.”
Folman takes pride in that description, filling the screen with imagery that is bound to look better if you watch them high as a kite. There’s a never-ending stream of kooky characters, many recognizable from elsewhere in cinema, a delirious cacophony of colours and sounds that enchants the audience as much as it does the dumbfounded characters. There is, however, a grim reality for the hallucinating masses in The Congress, a Snowpiercer-esque hierarchy in the world.
The visual extravagance alone makes this a film worth experiencing – preferably on the big screen – but ultimately this is a really messy film. The Congress oscillates between the good and the head-scratchingly awful, often in a matter of minutes. It appears, quite literally, to be the work of a genius on an acid trip, without an editor. There are several unnecessary subplots and a complete lack of tonal consistency from scene to scene. The core ideas are refreshing and intelligent but remain the pieces of a puzzle that never comes together to form a coherent whole. The visionary talent on display is indisputable and promises an interesting career ahead of Ari Folman. One only wishes that The Congress had been able to harness all that wild energy.