Review: ‘The Congress’ is Gorgeous and Emotionally Devastating

By August 29, 2014
[This is a re-post of our 2013 Fantastic Fest review. The Congress opens today in limited release.]

“Fearless” is one of those adjectives that gets thrown around a lot when it seems like actors venture outside of their comfort zones, but there won’t be many performances more accurately described that way than Robin Wright’s in The Congress. Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz With Bashir chronicles Wright’s – or, a Robin Wright’s – decision to sell her likeness to a studio in exchange for a sort of cinematic immortality, and the actress subjects herself to a litany of extremely unkind conversations, not to mention an unflinching look at her career choices, good and especially bad. Sumptuously rendered and emotionally devastating, The Congress is a magnificent triumph, a half-fantasy-half-nightmare that combines animation and live action to amplify an actress’s fearless performance, even as she shines a light on how we look at ourselves, and perhaps will going forward, as technology continues to engulf our lives.

Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself, an aging actress whose early promise in films like The Princess Bride didn’t quite pay off, commercially or critically. Living in a renovated airplane hangar with her two kids Sarah (Sami Gayle) and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Robin dodges offers from her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) when not receiving harsh, unflattering lectures about her career from studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston). But after Aaron’s health takes a turn for the worse, Robin reluctantly agrees to sign a contract which allows Jeff’s studio to use her likeness in any way they see fit, turning her into an action star or any other sort of character through the magic of CGI.

20 years later, Robin attends the Futurological Congress, a showcase for the studio’s technology, which allows people to transform themselves into any likeness they choose – including hers. But after she realizes that being reduced to an image is just the first step to becoming a true commodity, she begins to question her decision to “sell out,” sending her on an odyssey to rediscover her true self while facing the fantastical landscape that her choice unleashed upon the world.

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Even if the film as a whole is a little unwieldy or too “out there” for some, it features what may be the year’s best scene, where Wright enters the scanning chamber where her reactions will be recorded for later duplication and manipulation. After a tech fails to draw out the required emotions, Al takes the microphone and delivers one of the most perfectly-pitched, heartbreaking monologues you’ll ever hear: describing how the character’s rough-and-tumble upbringing led to him becoming an agent, Keitel finds all of the right notes of humor, wistful nostalgia, self-reflection and painful honesty, which washes over Wright’s face in a perfect ballet between his triggers and her responses. Indeed, the film’s biggest shortcoming may be in never again reaching the emotional peaks achieved in this pivotal scene, although everything flows towards, and later away from it, appropriately making it a centerpiece rather than an arbitrary high-water mark.

That said, the rest of the film is hardly bereft of emotional weight, thanks in no small part to a script which essentially forces Wright to revisit her professional and personal shortcomings in the most unkind and even outright cruel language possible. Suffice it to say that the character she’s playing isn’t the “real” Robin Wright – her own accomplishments far outpacing those of the fictional version on screen – but watching Wright endure tirade after tirade from Huston’s character about her “lousy movies,” about how she was so beautiful feels like a sort of torture one wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. But even without the character’s verisimilitude, the on-screen Wright examines the nature and the value of identity in a way that should gives audiences pause long after they have returned to the harsh truths of reality from the film’s fantastical refuge.

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Meanwhile, the film’s animated sequences – which are much less of an afterthought than I make them seem here – are breathtaking, not quite psychedelic but fluid and evolving as Wright re-evaluates the world around her after effectively becoming a “cartoon” version of herself. The second half of the film devotes most of its time to her discovering the dangers of the animated world’s escapism, constantly keeping the audience attuned to the very real emotional stakes of her quandary, while offering a commentary on the ways in which we utilize technology to define ourselves, or in many cases, allow ourselves to be defined. The film additionally has much to say about our collective impulse to reinvent ourselves, or at the very least to be permanently dissatisfied with who and what we are, and Folman skillfully deconstructs consumerism as a façade, or replacement, for the qualities we seek to possess.

Ultimately less an animated film than a film whose naked humanity is augmented by animation, Folman’s latest is to be admired for its beauty – and perhaps ironically, its technical proficiency – but contemplated as an examination of the dehumanizing effects of technology. Embellished by the concept of being able to transform ourselves, and the world around us, into whatever we want, Folman doesn’t merely look at the value of one actress, but of every individual, crafting a cautionary tale that underscores its appeal as vividly as its hazards. The Congress is, like the world it creates, a magical but deceptive experience – ornately beautiful and endlessly imaginative, and yet harsh and unforgiving – and its undeniable power comes from feeling all of that at once.

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Todd Gilchrist is a film critic with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies, and IGN.