Ari Folman‘s “The Congress” aka “Robin Wright at The Congress” aka “Reviewer’s Nightmare” (last title mine) opens the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this evening and screened for a group of alternately beguiled and baffled press this morning. Evoking Miyazaki and perhaps on-form Gilliam in its best moments, and lurching oddly into “Southland Tales” territory in its worst, it is a film we’d be happy to call a fascinating muddle, were it not a little overstretched to really support even that summation. At the very least, however, should your copy of “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” have worn out through overuse, we can see “The Congress” having a similar kind of life as a late-night stoner mindfuck.
This is Folman’s first return to Cannes (and to feature filmmaking; he’s been keeping busy writing for TV otherwise) since 2008’s Oscar-nominated and universally lauded “Waltz with Bashir.” The five-year gap is attributed to many things, most often to his desire to work with a more sophisticated technique rather than the flash animation used in ‘Bashir.’ So the animation sequences here are smoother, yes, but the style varies wildly, from the clean lines and graphic backgrounds of ‘Bashir’ to Betty Boop-era Hollywood animation, to decorative, floral prettiness, even to a touch of steampunk. Not in itself an issue, but it adds to the feeling that, perhaps as a factor of this long writing period (Folman has said elsewhere that the film has been in gestation since 2008), “The Congress” has simply too much in it. It feels a little like a second feature, even though it isn’t — overloaded with too many ideas, it does scant justice to the more interesting ones that crop up, while regularly diverting from any sort of central narrative to follow tenuous and ill-explained threads that end up in a foggy limbo. But just when it threatens to wholly frustrate, someone cracks an enjoyable inside-baseball meta movie-making joke and we’re back on side for a bit.
Based on the novel “The Futurological Congress” by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, the film deviates from and adds to its source, tailoring the material both to the futuro-Hollywood setting and most overtly and specifically to Robin Wright, for whom Folman wrote the part. And so there are genuinely mischievous, fun moments in which Wright, playing a character called “Robin Wright” who leases the computer-generated image of a character called “Robin Wright” to a studio, references the real her (or at least our idea of the real her): she’s a movie star; by Hollywood standards she’s aging; she was in “The Princess Bride” and “State of Grace“; she made some questionable career choices; she exhibited poor judgement in men (!).
Most of this comes in the first third of the film, the live-action part which is certainly the most coherent and as a result perhaps the most enjoyable. In Danny Huston‘s studio mogul and Harvey Keitel‘s scrappy agent, the film finds mouthpieces for what is essentially straight-up Hollywood satire, reminiscent of the disastrous “SimOne,” but much better and a good deal wittier. If there’s a certain airlessness to Folman’s live-action aesthetic and a tendency to over-egg some of the speeches, it does set up a kind of artificial, sci-fi-ish tone early on, even in this, the least fantastical part of the film. (“No sci-fi,” stipulates Keitel, in one of the film’s many self-deprecating flourishes, “it’s such a dumb genre’).
So let’s have a go at a synopsis: aging movie star Robin Wright is offered a 20-year contract with “Miramount” in which they get to totally scan her body and register her facial expressions for every conceivable emotion, so they essentially have a totally biddable CG model of her, instead of the “difficult” flesh and blood version (we’re told Michelle Williams and Keanu Reeves are both now also CG images, and later on, through a perma-grinning caricature, Tom Cruise, too). Wright in return is given a large payout, but has to agree never to act again, a deal she takes so she can spend her time taking care of her son, who has a degenerative disease. We then cut abruptly to 20 years in the future when Wright is invited by Miramount to participate in a thing called The Futurological Congress, where she suspects she will be asked to renew her contract as, in the meantime, CG Robin Wright has become hot property in films like “Rebel Robot Robin” (which is where the early picture of Wright in futuristic garb comes from.) However for reasons not too clearly explained, the Congress is held in the “Animated Zone” and so Wright sniffs from an ampule of liquid and everything gets animated.
At this point the film doesn’t just burst into 2-D cartoonery, it devolves into a mess of unconnected strands and unexplained revelations and twists, during which Robin participates in or observes a kind of proto-revolution; meets her animator (Jon Hamm), who is in love with her; then is cryogenically frozen for another 20 years; and well, we’re not quite sure what else, except that it kind of borrows from “The Matrix“. There are many pleasures to be had along the way, especially in spotting the cartoon spoofs of everyone from Grace Jones to Pablo Picasso to Clint Eastwood, but the rules of the animated world — the ampules, the passage of time, the possibility of escape — are never firmly laid out. As a result, each new thing that happens comes out of nowhere and feels like contrivance, designed for maximum wtf-ness rather than to further the story. Without some recognizable parameters within which the narrative takes place, there’s little to stop some parts of the animated portion becoming aimless, episodic flights of fancy in which we have no real investment. The denouement, unfortunately, also works in this way, with the desire for a kind of sudden emotional resolution trumping any sort of internal logic.
It really is a difficult film to categorize because while there is an exuberance to it and a love of film on display (“Dr. Strangelove” gets a direct reference, but there are many more subtle cues within), it poses the old question of whether the immense ambition of the project should be admired over the fact that it falls down on so many of those ambitions. We’re going to err a little on the former side because as messy and convoluted, as overwritten and overstuffed and overcooked as the whole thing is, it’s certainly unique and displays more boldness and giddiness than we expect to see from any other film in Cannes. It’s just a shame that it has fully as many (unexplored) plot-lines, themes and ideas as the entire rest of the slate combined, too. [B-/C+]