The Congress is playing at The Nightlight Cinema September 20 – September 25, 2014. For showtimes visit their website.
Film Review by Manohla Dargis
Ari Folman’s genre mash-up “The Congress” could use a freakier title, something either more appealing or appalling to go with the weird, sometimes wonderful visions flowing through it. Not that it’s all entirely strange. There’s the opening image, for starters — a close-up of Robin Wright’s face, a familiar, delicate facade that’s well enough known to ignite a chain of signification: beauty, actress, star, Sean Penn, “House of Cards,” “The Princess Bride,” middle age, under-sung, career rebirth.
That there are tears slipping from that face’s poignantly melancholic eyes (always so, so sad) and sliding across its sharply planed cheeks suggests deep wells of meaning beneath its lovely surface. But Mr. Folman isn’t one to rush his ideas or anchor you with anything as banal as a little exposition. He opened his last movie, “Waltz With Bashir” — an animated documentary about the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon — with a terrible vision of snapping dogs gathering under a man’s window. The barking stops when the man wakes, except that it never truly stops, because his nightmare of war never ends.
Mr. Folman has dramatically switched gears for “The Congress,” a live action-animated hybrid that was partly inspired by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 short novel “The Futurological Congress.” An acquired taste, this dense Jabberwocky-ish word salad is a political allegory about a populace that’s been pharmaceutically duped into believing its wretched world is wonderful. Its narrator is a future Earthling, Ijon Tichy, who’s attending a gathering in a Costa Rican hotel, where blood, satire and nonsense intermingle. At one point, snippets from a ditty ring out on a loudspeaker like some hilariously inverted totalitarian axiom: “Now to make it in the arts, publicize your private parts! Critics say you can’t offend ’em with your phallus or pudendum!”
That also sounds like a business philosophy that the old Hollywood chieftains could have gotten behind, and it may well be that Harvey Weinstein or a compatriot once said something like it when discussing the art and eroticism of movie marketing. I jest, surely. Whatever the case, the movie business was also clearly percolating in Mr. Folman’s brain alongside Mr. Lem’s novel, though, again, it takes a while for these two parts to connect. Obvious-adverse, Mr. Folman opens his movie by dropping you into the flow midstream and then lets you bob along as Ms. Wright, as Robin, weeps and Harvey Keitel, as Al, sits across from her, calling out, “Robin, Robin” and berating her for “lousy choices.” Is he talking about Robin or Ms. Wright? Her role in “The Crossing Guard” or Mr. Penn?
It may seem vulgar to invoke Ms. Wright’s well-documented relationship with Mr. Penn, which was folded into high- and lowbrow tabloid narratives during their years together, becoming a crucial part of their public personas. Yet, in casting Ms. Wright to play a version of herself — a midcareer actress named Robin Wright who, once upon a Hollywood time, starred in “The Princess Bride” — Mr. Folman is counting on our familiarity with star personas. He’s banking on our knowledge of celebrity dramas and divorces; with Ms. Wright’s adding and dropping Penn from her name; with her turns in movies like “Forrest Gump” and “Nine Lives”; and how all of that blurs with the appealing, elusive fantasy woman she’s playing here.
Reality and illusion are on a collision course in “The Congress,” but it takes some time to get to the glorious crackup. Despite Mr. Keitel and Paul Giamatti, who shows up as a doctor, the movie’s initial stretch, involving scenes with Robin’s (fake) family, tends to drag. Things pick up once she and Al visit a movie company, Miramount (satirical shades of Miramax and Paramount), run by Jeff Green (Danny Huston, delectably slimy). “You were so beautiful,” Green says with the enthusiasm of someone who thinks he’s said something nice. The shot of Ms. Wright pausing in front of a poster for “The Princess Bride” and looking at her younger self, proves how wrong he — and, by extension — the industry is. She’s lovelier now; a better actress, too. Green however has no use for the real woman. He wants to digitize Robin so he can exploit her avatar in perpetuity.
The dehumanization wrought by the movie business is one of the themes that Mr. Folman plays with, if not deeply. Its degradations, it turns out, are not an especially compelling or persuasive substitute for the horrors of totalitarianism. That said, by the time the live action gives way to eye-tickling animation — and a smiling octopus is sailing through the sky, and a Clive Owen look-alike named Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm), is helping stir up kaleidoscopic chaos — you may not care that a Soviet-era political allegory doesn’t fit all that well with a savaging of the movie business. All that really matters is that when an animated Robin shows up later, driving a convertible, her hair swirled into a Tippi Hedren scoop, you are delighted to be riding shotgun.
The Nightlight Cinema
30 N High St.
Akron, OH 44308