Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
You have to admire Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's gutsiness. Does that mean you also have to give him a pass for how often impenetrable The Congress—his two parts live-action and one-third animated follow-up to the critically beloved, and fully animated, 2008 film Waltz with Bashir—is, particularly in its latter half? No, but the experience of entering his conceptually heightened version of Hollywood is, despite its flaws, exhilarating.
Of the same mind as Leos Carax's 2012 meta-cinematic oddity Holy Motors, The Congress thrives on the audacity of cynicism, clamping on to Hollywood's most destructive practices and going all wack-a-doo with what can best be described as psychedelic satire. It's easy to see why Folman's futuristic cautionary tale won the top Fantastic Features prize at last year's Fantastic Fest—it's a cinephile-specific product, and anyone whose film adoration is borderline or less should steer clear, lest they want to simulate taking a hallucinogenic drug without any of the fun.
Narcotics play a large role in The Congress, Folman's loose, less anti-communist and more screw-you-Hollywood adaption of author Stanislaw Lem's 1971 trippy sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress. Playing a fictionalized version of herself, but representing every middle-aged and older actress in the business, Robin Wright headlines as a movie star at the end of the line. Her loving but no-bullshit agent (Harvey Keitel) tells her like it is—she's past her prime, and if she doesn't start making expensive, popcorn-friendly genre films instead of respectable dramas, it's over for her.
The head of Miramount Studios (a stand-in for Paramount, natch), a suitably insensitive soul-crusher (Danny Huston), takes it one step further: Wright's only hope of maintaining her Hollywood stock is to participate in a radical new process known as "sampling," which allows the real-life actor to fade away into anonymity and age while their "scanned" versions go on starring in whatever movies the studio wishes while remaining young and beautiful. Against her better judgment, Wright signs up, mainly due to the fact that her teenage son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is sickly and needs her undivided, stay-at-home attention. Through scanning, she'll be able to care for him while digitized equivalents of herself cash out in ridiculous blockbusters like RRR: Rebelo Robot Robin - Street Fighter.
The opening, reality-centered section of The Congress is scathingly raw in its views on Hollywood's bottom-line ageism. Kudos to Wright for enduring the film's meta shots fired her way, the most biting of which come from Huston's character: "I need Buttercup from Princess Bride. I need Jenny from Forrest Gump. I don't need you. I need you only for your history… In the economy of a scanned actress, you're not worth six bucks." One can imagine actresses like Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson, and Diane Lane watching The Congress and sobbing, if not shivering at its dark yet entirely feasible depiction of the film system's treatment of the movie game's veterans.
When The Congress transitions into its dystopian animation section, though, those same actresses may feel more confused than compassionate. Abandoning the more simplified cutout style he used in Waltz with Bashir, Folman illustrates the world where a "Restricted Animated Zone" includes a high-rise hotel full of disillusioned industry types who drown their sorrows in hallucinogen chemicals. It's an alternately beautiful and dangerous hybrid of Ralph Bakshi drawings and Disney playfulness—a punk rock Disney, if you will. Though it's visually striking, the film's post-scanning storyline is tough to crack. Miramount has traded in moviemaking for pharmaceuticals, with Wright designated as the company's spokesperson to unveil a new product, since she's universally recognized as the "Best-Ever Digital Actress." Before Folman fleshes out this more Stenislaw Lem-minded portion, though, assassins and terrorists bring forth a violent, chaotic uprising that's rushed, not revolutionary.
For Wright, The Congress is laden with irony, whether intentional or not. Dominated by the film's animation, which doesn't allow her to capitalize on her heartbreaking performance within the pre-scanning scenes, she's ultimately the byproduct of exactly what The Congress is attacking: great actors and actresses being hindered by CGI and digital advancements. She does seem to be in on the joke, though, indicated by a funny back-and-forth between her and Huston about Wright's reluctance to make a science fiction movie while, you know, The Congress technically is one. Folman spends so much time developing his far-reaching, muddled faux Hollywood, however, that Wright's nuanced performance is a casualty of his ambition.
Then again, there's no mystery as to what compelled Wright—a multiple award nominee who's currently a regular on House of Cards—to make The Congress her first sci-fi project. Despite his inability to make all of the film's moving parts connect, Folman has brought so much earnestness and heart to The Congress, specifically in its handling of the mother/son dynamic between Wright and Smit-McPhee, that its inaccessibility isn't a deal-breaking deterrent. At times frustrating, yes, but still awe-inspiring enough to qualify The Congress as a worthwhile entry into the "Hollywood is a heartless, unappreciative place" canon of films, preceded by Sunset Boulevard (1950), Barton Fink (1991), and the aforementioned Holy Motors.
The Congress is available on VOD now, via Drafthouse Films, and will open theatrically on August 29.