The Congress review: Dream factory freak-out

Animated: Robin Wright in The Congress

Film Title: The Congress

Director: Ari Folman

Starring: Robin Wright, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm, Harvey Keitel

Genre: Adventure

Running Time: 122 min

Fri, Aug 15, 2014, 00:00


Ari Folman, director of Waltz with Bashir, follows up that hugely original – and still depressingly relevant – critique of Israeli martial policy with a project that many will call “brave”. Now, there’s a troublesome word. We remember, in Yes Minister, how, whenever Sir Humphrey wanted to dissuade Jim Hacker from some lunatic scheme, he would drag out the slippery word “courageous”.

Everything about this project suggests folly. What do film-makers do when, after securing a critical smash, they get a bit of creative freedom? Well, they make this sort of film: Robin Wright, playing herself, sells her digital image to a Machiavellian studio and then, after sad years have past, attends a convention that requires all attendees to come as animated versions of themselves.

When The Congress played at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes last year, it received respectful, if not ecstatic, reviews from puzzled critics. The consensus was that, while not destined for immediate success, it had the capacity to become something of a cult phenomenon. Such a gap has yawned between its premiere and release that the film may have already achieved that status. It helps that much of the film’s later sections look to have been beamed forward from the Summer of Love. Come and rediscover this oddest of new releases.

One aspect of the film that doesn’t seem particularly brave is the initial attack on the vapidity of Hollywood. From Sullivan’s Travels in the 1940s through Sunset Blvd in the 1950s to The Player in the 1990s, the Dream Factory has loved to hate itself (or has loved to pretend to hate itself).

Robin Wright plays a version of Robin Wright with no manners, little self-control and not much of a future. Her agent (Harvey Keitel) has received an offer from Miramount Studios (get it?) to licence her digital image for eternity. Dealing less in speculative fantasy than current concerns, the film explains that, while Wright keeps her aging face out of the limelight, Miramount (come on, come on) will continue to make films featuring an animated version of their virtual star. Eager to care for her frail son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), aware that nobody much wants to work with her, Wright agrees to the deal. Danny Huston is on hand to represent the weasly face of the industry. Nobody else is much more humane.

Twenty years later, we meet Robin on her way to the Futurist Congress. As her car passes the security gate, she casts her eyes into the rear-view mirror to find an animated version of herself looking back.

The world around her shifts in a similarly freaky direction. The road becomes a rainbow. Fish vault from the brightly coloured desert. Further synopsis is unnecessary (indeed, scarcely possible). What we have here is a juiced-up fantasy of a kind we’ve rarely seen since the 1970s. The story is slippery enough to emerge from Michael Moorcock’s mind. The bold animation has more to do with Heavy Metal magazine than with Pixar. Viewers of a certain age may feel the urge to remove a black vinyl disc from the screen, place it on the turntable and roll fragrant herbs on the brightly coloured surface.

Very loosely based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem – the author of Roadside Picnic, on which the film Stalker is loosely based – The Congress doesn’t trade in many new ideas, but there are so many attractive and intriguing old ideas about the place that it proves nearly impossible to get bored.

If we are to compare it to earlier indulgent follies then it is closer to the zany larks of Yellow Submarine than the furrowed self-importance of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Remember to tune in. Be prepared to turn on. Expect to drop out.