"A genius designer on an acid trip" is the way one character describes the futuristic animated universe of Ari Folman’s "The Congress," which contains one of the most startling uses of the medium to come along in years.
Words can hardly do justice to the plethora of outlandish visuals populating this ambitious sophomore feature from the Israeli director of "Waltz With Bashir," but they’re merely one piece of a larger puzzle. Folman’s beguiling project amounts to a stinging indictment of mainstream culture’s unending commodification. The director spent half a decade assembling his loose adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel, "The Futurological Congress," and the work shows in both its stunning appearance and the extraordinary depth of insight paired with it. Folman uses beauty and wonder as vessels for rage.
Echoing the meta device of "Being John Malkovich," Folman’s movie revolves around an actor playing a fictionalized version of herself — and in the process, delivering an incredibly heartfelt performance. Robin Wright appears in two modes: During the curious first hour, she struggles with her waning career, eventually agreeing to a digital experiment that will prolong her vitality indefinitely; during the nearly indescribable second half, which takes place 20 years in the future, the rotoscope style Folman first explored with "Waltz With Bashir" is subjected to a kaleidoscopic makeover. Bright colors and cartoonish figures borrowed from over a century of animation techniques populate each mesmerizing crowd scene to create a breathtaking sensory impact.
Goaded by conniving studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) — the mogul of a fictional studio slyly titled Miramount — to embrace an emerging technology that allows a digital replica of herself to take over her career, Wright is eventually consumed by this alternate persona. The rest of the world falls in line, abandoned by the trappings of an all-consuming new dimension built exclusively for profit motive. Has there ever been a movie so aggressive toward Hollywood power structures? From Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" to Robert Altman’s "The Player," storytellers have constantly assaulted the studio system, but Folman makes its evils come alive with phantasmagorical effects that force viewers to see the argument from the inside out.
"The Congress" is harder to explain than experience, but its central conceits come hard and fast. It rails against commercialism with an absurdly far-fetched premise rendered in the bright palette of a Ralph Bakshi movie and a surrealist edge that echoes "Naked Lunch." But it’s also a wholly original sensory overload bound to confuse and provoke in equal measures.
In the early live-action scenes, a naturally gruff Harvey Keitel plays Wright’s compassionate longtime agent, who goads her into accepting the gig in order to rescue her career from the oblivion of middle age. Suffering from personal setbacks, particularly a disease ailing her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that may cause him to go deaf, Wright hesitantly accepts a contract that will allow some intangible machine to capture her every movement and sound in order to cast her virtual self in movies for the next two decades. Literally selling her body out of desperation, Wright’s choice marks the first step in Folman’s quest to fuse outlandish allegory with bonafide emotion. The first act plays like a sci-fi take-off on "Sullivan’s Travels," with despondent showbiz types accepting the inevitable need to sell out. But what comes next has no easy point of comparison.
In the future, Wright weaves across a desolate landscape in her sleek electric vehicle, arriving at "a restricted animation zone" where her entire surroundings suddenly morph into the trippiest display of ebullient cartoon graphics this side of "The Yellow Submarine." In this world, a virtual space seemingly crafted by the ominous Miramount, devious agendas lurk around every corner. As the animated Wright wanders through an Orwellian environment with dashes of manga and Max Fleisher alike, she witnesses the fallout of the technology she signed off on years earlier: Her face plastered on blimp ads for terrible action franchises, Wright’s personality has been thoroughly co-opted by a devious agenda to turn everything into a profitable simulation; her very identity, she learns, may soon become a soft drink.
That’s only the tipping point for an unwieldy adventure that includes a perilous cartoon riot, Jon Hamm as an animated love interest, and Wright’s tragic hunt to find her missing child that stretches across more than one level of perception. No matter the difficulty involved in untangling the details, "The Congress" is a conceptually fluid missive against the corporatization of storytelling.
In another brief, memorable role, Paul Giamatti appears as a pessimistic doctor who predicts a cynical future in which movies depart from the screen and instead become internalized by the human body — sort of like the animation zone, where reality collides with the forces that conspire to control it. In this grim future, capitalism has corrupted the foundations of human consciousness. "Movies are old news, remnants of the last millennium," says Miramount’s monstrous overlord.
Folman answers that bleak assertion with this spectacular achievement, an ode to wonders of cinematic invention. Wright naturally maintains an intimate screen presence, appearing in tears during the first shot and settling down — even after she transforms into a line drawing. Yet it’s the sheer technical skill of "The Congress" that empowers it. In the process of dreading the death of cinema, Folman contributes to its continuing ability to see the world in new ways. Beneath the anger, "The Congress" offers hope.
"The Congress" is available on several video-on-demand platforms starting today. It opens theatrically in Los Angeles and in New York on September 5. A version of this review originally ran during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.