Review: Robin Wright shakes loose reality in ‘The Congress’

Ariel Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” was a strong use of animation to express something personal, a worldview that tried to paint an emotional picture of what it’s like to have gone through something harrowing, tied to both your religious and national identity, something that skews your perception for the rest of your life. I was quite taken with the film when it came out, and I have seen it a few times since on Blu-ray, and find it quite beautiful and sad.

One of several films to premiere at Cannes this summer before playing Fantastic Fest in Austin this month, “The Congress” is something else entirely. Loosely working from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, whose work was also the basis of “Solaris,” Folman has made the movie that Andrew Niccol was desperately straining to make with “SimOne.” The result is a beautiful, eccentric science-fiction story about the liquid nature of identity in the digital age and what it is that defines performance in the first place. Robin Wright stars as a savagely fictionalized version of herself, facing the end of her career in the form of industry-wide indifference thanks to years of meltdowns, rejected offers, and questionable creative decisions. Her agent, played by Harvey Keitel, comes to her with what is described as “the last offer you’ll ever get,” delivered by the unflinchingly blunt Danny Huston as a studio head who remembers the promise of the young Buttercup and who is angry at the reality of who Wright has become.

The offer is very direct. They want to make a digital Robin Wright who they can do whatever they want with for as long as they want. It’s an insult at first, and why not? Wright makes the entirely accurate point that the one thing a digital version of her will never have, no matter what, is the ability to make the same choices she would make, and Huston suggests that is a good thing, that she doesn’t know what’s best for herself. Her life is focused on her two kids, Sarah (the precocious Sami Gayle) and Aaron (Kodi-Smit McPhee), a dreamy kid preoccupied with airplanes and kites. The implication is that he’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and Wright would much rather be there to help her son than work on a movie she doesn’t really care about.

The first 40 minutes or so is about Wright wrestling with the choice, then coming to grips with it and reporting for the actual scanning process. That’s portrayed as basically one long beautiful sequence involving her and Christopher B. Duncan and Keitel, and it’s one of those scenes that totally hinges on human performance, something which seems directly tied to Folman’s thought process here. The film jumps forward in time after that scene, anad we catch up with society after we’ve made the jump to people being able to make a choice about how they want to live… physically or digitally. Of course, the choice is really only available to some people, not everyone, and the world that is left behind by the people who choose to push completely into a fantasy realm is a dreary nightmare. Wright ventures into this fully animated world where anyone is anything they want, free of any kind of restriction, and she ends up meeting Dylan (Jon Hamm), the animator who just spend a decade in love with the digital Robin Wright, desperate to meet the “real” one. What is the real you in a world like this, though? “The Congress” digs down past the Hollywood stuff to get to the real nature of who we are as we interact in a space where we are defined by ideas and words and avatars, a world where our physical identities are secondary, not primary. Lem’s novel really only dealt with a small part of what Folman does in the film, and It’s a beautiful, sexual, melancholy utopia that Folman imagines.

It’s hard to describe the film’s specific imagery because it doesn’t always make literal sense, nor should it. If people could make the world anything they wanted, it would look nothing like the literal world around us. People would express themselves in the most extreme ways possible, and it would be shocking and beautiful and strange and upsetting. Folman’s world doesn’t look a thing like what I’d imagine, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Creating something as big and bold and expansive as the entire world of fantasy made flesh is an exercise that’s going to say far more about the filmmaker than anything else, and I love what the film ultimately has to say about how we will recognize the essence of someone we love in this brave new world, no matter what form they wear.

Animation and science-fiction are both genres that are frequently given far less respect in terms of what gets made than they deserve, and “The Congress” manages to be a great example of the freedom afforded by both. Folman is a thoughtful filmmaker who is genuinely concerned with questions about the soul, and “The Congress” is not just brave for him, not just brave for Wright, but it’s brave for the medium itself. I love seeing something that refuses all easy categorization like this, but in a way that feels thematically sound and not just for the sake of being crazy. This one’s going to linger.

“The Congress” will be released by Drafthouse Films in 2014.