“Ultimately, everything makes sense. And everything is in our mind.”
Robin Wright is a woman who has a decade of poor decisions weighing her down. Once a shining star and a fresh faced actress ready to take on stardom, she’s now known as someone who drops out of movies at the last minute and would rather spend time with her outspoken daughter and sickly son. Her star is dimming – her manager and team tell her as much – so they offer her the last contract of her career.
So is the opening premise of Ari Folman’s (Waltz of Bashir) newest film, The Congress, a trippy, introspective, and dreamlike story about a woman who’s spent her life inadvertently being told what to do and who’s learning what the meaning of choice is. The first third of the film tackles the double standard set in place for actresses in Hollywood – how they’re not allowed to age, even relatively gracefully, and how being in your forties is essentially the end of any fruitful offers.
That’s only the first third and it’s a marvelous showcase for Wright, who’s playing a distorted version of herself. Wright is a beautiful woman, but the studios wanted her to keep her youthful beauty from The Princess and the Bride and bottle it for the entirety of her career. Robin is told that her last chance for longevity is to give up her likelihood by allowing herself to be scanned into a computer using futuristic technology, technology that will preserve the character of her younger self. The studio will do with that image as it pleases, while the real Robin will disappear into obscurity, never to act again.
At first Robin is against the idea, reluctant to give up the inherent need to be in control of her own life, her own body and face. But then her son is shown to be deteriorating in health and her choice is made for her out of her control again. Life has dealt her son a raw deal, so she takes the contract.
The first part of the film sets up the ending beautifully, but in such a way that you don’t immediately catch on to the manner in which it is done. The beginning of the film is all about humanity’s reliance on technology and hints at ways in which human participation in art forms could become obsolete. Robin is no longer useful to her studio for anything other than her face; she’s seen as a commodity rather than a person. It’s the film’s last half that really jumps into the theme of the film.
As seen in the trailers, the film spends a large amount of time animated and the utilization of the art form enhances the meaning behind the film. 20 years into the future after signing the contract, Robin is invited to sign yet another one that would commercialize her. This is when things begin to get a little wacky and Robin is forced on a fever dream odyssey where she encounters brief love, forced reflection and the meaning of reality: is it what we see or what we choose to believe?
While the film has a stellar supporting cast, this is without a doubt Wright’s showcase. She wonderfully embodies the aging actress with lost dreams, the mother who wants nothing more than her kids’ happiness, the woman who’s looking for meaning in her life. It’s a performance of a lifetime. The animation is innovative and unrestrained. Dreams are otherworldly and the nature of the world here is pure hallucinogenic, showing us how dreams are limitless.
I can’t quite verbalize exactly why The Congress has left such an impression on me, and if my thoughts are incoherent it’s because I haven’t quite wrapped my head around what I watched. There are noticeable faults, including the middling storyline that interweaves and intersects in a manner that creates confusion at moments where the action doesn’t relent, and the pacing isn’t always steady, but the overall package just works.
As the movie says, life and what you see is what you make of it, and I saw a story about life lost, life lived, and all that falls in between. It’s a movie about fear of aging and of moving forward. It’s a movie about the detriment of hanging on to the past and about the consequences of vanity. There are moments such as the scanner scene that are shot so beautifully and work due to the minimalist nature, mixed with Wright and Harvey Keitel’s performance that highlight all that this film is about without hammering you over the head with it. Folman has created a movie that is about so many things, but the overwhelming theme is reality versus dreams, what has meaning and what’s arbitrary. It’s a story about a mother who loves her son and would spend eternity and a lifetime looking for him. Do you choose reality or oblivion?
At its best moments it hits hard and I doubt I’ll be shaking it for a while.
This film is on Video On Demand currently and hits theaters in limited release August 29th.