Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir was a highly unconventional documentary that used animation to bring to life the memories of Israeli veterans of the first Lebanon War. It won dozens of awards, was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 and made Folman one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world. All doors were open to him – he could make virtually any film he wanted next.
The project he chose was not an obvious one - a loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem science-fiction novel - which he has turned into The Congress, a half-animated fable of the career choices of an aging actress that turns into a metaphor about our increasingly digital and entertainment-addled world. The film premiered in Cannes and was the opening film at the Haifa International Film Festival.
A post-modernist cautionary tale, The Congress opens with a live-action storyline with Robin Wright as a 44-year-old actress named Robin Wright. Her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), grouses that she was “a movie queen at 24” whose erratic behavior and “lousy choices” slammed doors for her.
Now the vaguely malevolent movie studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston) is making her one last offer: She can be digitally “sampled” by computer, and a perpetually young digital version of herself will keep making movies, while she lives out her life quietly.
She rejects this offer out of hand and returns to the highly symbolic converted airplane hangar where she lives with her sassy teen daughter and her son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is suffering from a rare neurological (and metaphorical) malady in which he is gradually losing his vision and hearing. Obsessed with planes and light, he speaks in poetic utterances and flies kites. When his doctor (Paul Giamatti) tells Wright that Aaron is deteriorating, she agrees to the studio’s deal. In a mawkish monologue that turns on our appreciation of the parasitic and predatory nature of the agent’s role, Al coaxes various facial expressions out of Wright while she is being “sampled” as he tells about how he got into his profession by exploiting handicapped children.
The film then skips 20 years ahead, where Wright is invited to an “animated zone,” where she is asked to address a congress of what is now called Miramount- Nagasaki, a giant corporate entity.
In order to enter, she takes an ampule that turns her into an animated version of herself. The best part of the film is her drive to the studio, through a road that turns into a sea of gorgeous and wildly imaginative animation.
At the conference, however, she excoriates those gathered for focusing on entertainment rather than finding a cure for illnesses like the one that affects her son. The logic of the storyline begins deteriorating as fast as Aaron’s vision from this point on. Should we feel guilty for wanting to be entertained and for enjoying the cartoon visuals, which play like a trippy combination of R. Crumb, manga and early Disney? In lightning succession, the congress is attacked by an animated rebel army, a man named Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm) comes forward to be Wright’s guardian angel, and Wright is frozen in liquid nitrogen for 70 years.
When she awakens, she has a choice: to go back into the real world and search for Aaron or stay in this animated paradise/prison.
She returns to the so-called real world, and this live-action locale is grim and filthy. It looks so much like other dystopian futuristic nightmare worlds (Children of Men, The Hunger Games, etc. ) that you’ll be forgiven for wondering why anyone in their right mind wouldn’t prefer the gorgeous colors and pleasures of the animated realm, which, for Wright, includes having sex with the animated Jon Hamm character.
While there are many clever lines skewering Hollywood and its clichés, it’s hard not to feel scolded by Folman. He entertains us with animation – there are cartoon characters that look like Michael Jackson, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe and dozens of other iconic figures – but then seems to be saying we are mindless sensation junkies for enjoying this glamorous, alluring world he has so painstakingly created.
Waltz with Bashir was a film that came from deep in Folman’s heart and mind. The Congress doesn’t seem to reflect anyone’s feelings or experience. Instead, it’s a mishmash of effects and ideas.