LFF 2013 – The Congress (Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir (2008) director Ari Folman melds together Stanislaw’s novel ‘The Futurological Congress’ and the career of actress Robin Wright for this odd but moving mixture of live action and animation. Wright plays a fictional variation of herself, a narrative device made popular after Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) and one which allows filmmakers to play around with a star’s persona. In The Congress Wright becomes a washed-up Hollywood dropout living in an airport hangar with her two children Aaron (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) who is losing his hearing and idealistic teenager Sarah (Sami Gayle). Wright has spent the intervening years since her early success in The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner) driving her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) nuts by making bad career choices.
A lucrative offer from ‘Miramount’ studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) to submit to an experimental new technique designed to replace ageing actors with CGI avatars so they remain forever young forces Wright to make a final decision on her acting career. Fade way or remain onscreen as an A-list simulacrum. Huston’s casting may be a nod towards his role in Bernard Rose’s fuck you to Hollywood Ivans XTC (2000) which combined the tragic life of agent Jay Moloney with Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’ Here however the satire is laboured and feels inauthentic. Though he makes fair points about how the industry sidelines women over forty and audiences are complicit in their preference for younger stars Folman has never made a Hollywood movie and it shows. These kinds of attacks work better when those involved have done time there like Rose and have scores to settle.
Folman is on stronger ground adapting Lem’s story about a future where people imbibe chemicals allowing them to escape from reality into a fantasy world of their own construction. Both filmmaker and novelist share thematic interests. Waltz with Bashir is essentially a journey through Folman’s memories to uncover a moment lost to him. Likewise Lem’s work particularly in ‘Solaris’ deals with the hold the past can have over a person especially if loss is involved. Twenty years after signing away her career and letting her CGI replacement take over Wright is summoned to a meeting in an entirely animated world called Abrahama.
Though this place is supposed to represent a new medium replacing motion pictures Abrahama has the retro feel of a Twenties cocktail party and the look of the animation resembles the work of old cartoons. People take comfort in the past, turning themselves briefly into Hollywood idols, or in the case of a lovelorn computer programmer Dylan improving their own physicality by turning himself into a tall dark and handsome matinee idol lookalike. Dylan is affectingly voiced by Jon Hamm who possesses one of the loveliest and saddest voices around. As Wright searches for her missing children in this strange new world The Congress becomes another mesmerising waltz through a dreamscape, once again set to a haunting Max Richter score.
The Congress is bound to divide audiences and admittedly it can infuriate as well as mesmerise often in the same scene. Yet any film featuring Robin Wright singing Leonard Cohen tracks, impersonating Sterling Hayden, and confessing she may have married unsuitable men has my vote. The Congress also features a remarkable monologue delivered by Harvey Keitel which is at once a confession of betrayal and of love which is worth the price of a ticket alone. 
The Congress
Written by Ari Folman, 
based on ‘The Futurological Congress’ by Stanislaw Lem
Directed by Ari Folman
Running time 122 minutes

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