My cinematic diet during my recent two week bout with pneumonia was about what you’d expect of me: marathon episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.l.D and the odd Golan-Globus action fest to spice things up. It turns out that when my respiratory system is acting as a battle ground/phlegm repository I lean towards the film and TV equivalent of saltine crackers to match my actual diet. But I’m on the mend now, dear readers, and my first foray back into movie watching more complex than the likes of Charles Bronson can offer was a film I’ve had my eye on for a long time: The Congress, the long awaited new outing by Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman.
Continuing his trend of blending fiction and non-fiction, The Congress stars Robin Wright as herself, an aging actress who has fallen on hard times (the film was made before her House of Cards turn) and is given a strange proposition: a major studio (unimaginatively named “Miramount”) offers to scan her body and mind to create a perfect digital reproduction of her, to act in movies in her place. Of course, all this comes with the hitch that the real Robin can never act again. Although she’s resistant to the idea, her son’s rapidly degenerating health forces her to go through with the procedure.
Seems fairly straightforward right? Well, unfortunately it’s right after the scanning scene (which, conversely, is the best scene in the film by a landslide) that the film goes so off the rails harder than the time train from Back to the Future III.
Without getting too into it, we flash forward twenty years into the future when new chemical breakthroughs (read: drugs) have created “a world without ego” where everyone walks around in what looks like an even more drugged-out version of a Tex Avery cartoon, completely free to be and do whatever they want. In this strange new world, Robin sets out to find her son and try to understand this strange new world.
I spent second and third act of this movie with my mouth ajar and a puzzled expression on my face, completely dumbstruck as it flitted like a magpie from one theme and idea to another. One second it’s like some kind of animated Jodorowsky movie, hitting us over the head with painfully obvious surrealist social criticism (I mean come on, Miramount?) the next it’s all dystopian futurism, the next it’s a mother’s quest for her son.
The movie feels confused, about what it wants to be, what it wants to say. Is it about the Hollywood star system? Mood-altering drugs? Identity? It feels like Folman loaded up a shotgun with themes and ideas, pointed it directly at the audience’s face and emptied both barrels.
But what’s really maddening is that even in the midst of the millions of different directions the film is being pulled, there are still flashes of beauty and insight. It’s like looking at what you’ve been assured is a magic eye painting, and you keep thinking you’ve caught a glimpse of what you’re really supposed to be seeing, but really you’re just standing there with your eyes crossed and a headache.
Even now, I’m still maddeningly unsure of how much I liked the movie, because I can’t help but wonder if there was something I missed, some moment of transcendence that went over my head. It’s the kind of movie that I know will alienate a lot of people, because it seems so convinced of its own profundity that it’s hard not to blame yourself when you don’t have a bloody clue what you’re supposed to be watching.
On a purely technical level, the film switches back and forth between beautiful and achingly bland, with the live action segments at the beginning and end standing as solid proof that Folman should stick to animation. Scenes will often have this flatly lit, untextured blank-ness to it, usually shot in long takes from a straight-on angle, or paint-by-numbers shot/counter-shot. Visually, the live action sequences are so unremarkable that it’s a massive relief when the animation kicks in, which is thankfully vibrant and lively, if still anchored to a very “super-flat” style.
And oddly enough, with the exception of one scene, the acting (especially the live-action segments) is so stilted and flat across the board that I can’t help but wonder if it was intentional. Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and Danny Huston all seem to be struggling with the wordy, monologue-heavy script, and usually deliver their lines with a shocking flatness and lack of conviction, considering how much talent they’ve shown in the past. Paul Giamatti, thankfully, seems to be trying harder, which seems weird since the last thing I saw him in had him acting more like a cartoon character than any of The Congress‘s animated creations.
Even now, I still don’t know what the hell to make of The Congress. It’s so full of ideas and themes that it’s constantly threatening to blow apart at the seams, but at the same time does an almost convincing job of coercing you into thinking you’re watching something deep and profound.
Is there a deeper meaning at work? Is there actual total thematic consistency? Is this movie just too damn smart for the likes of me? Or is it just a bloated, unwieldy mess of high-minded philosophical musings and anti-escapist, anti-corporate, anti-goddamn everything symbolism?
I honestly don’t know, and I’ve yet to be convinced that the film itself knows either. On a surface level, it’s occasionally beautiful and occasionally unbelievably drab, inconsistently acted and either needlessly obtuse or maddeningly obvious (Fucking Miramount). To put it simply, it’s confused, and unless you can glean some meaning from all this madness, is likely to leave you the same way.