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Being Robin Wright

The Congress (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

A divisive entry in Cannes Director’s Fortnight back in May and now a polarizing presence at 57th BFI London Film Festival, Ari Folman’s almost dementedly ambitious film could well antagonize some viewers with its scattershot approach to a variety of 21st-century concerns, from modern culture, to science, technology, aging and more. But for its sheer audacity and willingness to approach both philosophical concepts and a bewildering animation style, I’d argue it’s a film to be dissected and admired.

Robin Wright plays a version of herself, just another washed-up 40something actress unable to land a meaty Hollywood role. According to her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), it’s all her own fault anyway; her prima donna tendencies and bizarre career choices have left her unemployable. The latest wheeze in Hollywood involves dispensing with actors entirely and simply duplicating them electronically so they can star in all manner of computer-generated stories of the studios’ choosing. In order to partake, one has to sign over one’s entire image rights in perpetuity while also relinquishing any pretense of free will: the studios can do with you what they like. But it’s easy money. Fast forward 20 years, and Robin’s avatar has become a massive movie star. The ‘real’ Robin has been invited to a futurological congress at which the next generation of immersive entertainment will be announced: the ability to literally imbibe celebrities’ essences and become them (shades of Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral” in this idea). In a final act set yet further in the future, reality as we knew it has been completely superseded by a new virtual realm — a soothing, medically enhanced playground in which people permanently live out their fantasies, but Robin’s still around and she’s determined to find her long-lost son whom she believes, like her, will still value the veracity of cold reality.

Much of this plot detail and more can be traced back to the Stanislaw Lem novel upon which the film is purportedly based, “The Futurological Congress,” but what Mr. Folman’s screenplay adds is the whole postmodern ploy of satirizing Hollywood and sending up Ms. Wright’s real persona — the “Being John Malkovich” angle, if you like. The first third of the film lays this on quite thick, with Danny Huston reveling in the role of a studio executive, and although Mr. Folman creates some genuine laughs here, it’s clear that satire is probably not his forté. There’s a slight but distinct stiltedness, although nothing irrevocably harmful to the film’s overall effectiveness.

Later in the film — once we’re inside the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of animated reality — Mr. Folman also needs to convey the primacy of the entertainment industry’s cultural icons: His future masses aren’t just obsessed with imitating their contemporary stars but idolize more recognizable golden-age celebrities, too. Some may find the resulting cavalcade of strangely approximated superstars a grating and inappropriate element for such a supposedly serious sci-fi story — a gurning Tom Cruise-alike and a regal replica of Grace Jones seem like they’ve wandered in from a more lightweight “Futurama” universe, for example — but this ersatz rendering of celebrity culture is crucial to Mr. Folman’s vision and also helps lighten a complex narrative.

The animation itself is a curious mixture of styles and completely distinct from the angular rotoscope look of “Waltz With Bashir,” Mr. Folman’s previous film. Characters are exaggerated with a subtle perversity that recalls Max Fleischer and Robert Crumb, but the canvass in which they operate is as expansive and undulating as a Ghibli worldscape. I’m personally a sucker for tripped-out animated sequences of pure, unadulterated mind-melting fantasy, and “The Congress” certainly lets loose on occasion; but Mr. Folman is careful not to overwhelm more conservative audiences with excessive abstraction — around half of the film is live-action in any case.

At times it may be a difficult story to follow, but the philosophical questions at its heart are roughly the same as one of Hollywood’s mainstream sci-fi hits — “The Matrix.” Just as in that film Mr. Folman is examining issues of free will and how technological progress could affect the very nature of reality. I’m certainly not suggesting that “The Congress” will (or should) appeal to as wide an audience as “The Matrix,” as these ideas are wrapped up in a much more elaborate and convoluted shell. But it should appeal to more adventurous viewers who enjoyed films like “Ghost in the Shell II,” “Paprika” and “Waking Life,” a group which “The Congress” can now proudly join in that exclusive subgenre known as philosophical animations.

The reasons for the film’s divisiveness probably lie in Mr. Folman’s reach and ambition, and certainly there has been nothing in his previous work to suggest such a complex undertaking, despite “Waltz With Bashir’s” cleverness. Mr. Folman doesn’t hit every mark, and throughout the film there are odd moments of humor that don’t come off, or emotional pinnacles that don’t quite connect; but with a film that aims to encompass so many different tones, ideas and techniques that’s not unexpected. “The Congress” doesn’t seem so much like Mr. Folman’s first stab at the mainstream, with Hollywood actors to boot, as one final throw of the dice, a defiant and explosive outpouring of unshackled creative expression. Perhaps, like (the fictional) Robin, he’s afraid of burning his bridges too soon, but if there’s any justice “The Congress” should cement Mr. Folman’s status as a cult hero of adventurous genre cinema at its most uncompromising.


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