There is more than a hint of irony in the fact that Ari Folman’s The Congress should arrive at a time when the star of its central presence should be so much on the rise. In Folman’s reality, Robin Wright, playing some version of herself, is an ageing actress of dwindling status. This is the Wright of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, a one-time ingénue whose box office power has waned in line with her disastrous personal and professional choices.
The House of Cards Wright does not exist.
As the icily bewitching Claire Underwood in Netflix’s towering political thriller, the former Mrs Sean Penn has reinvented her recently low-key career; she has taken on a keen edge that comes with maturity. Alongside Kevin Spacey, Wright’s portrayal, so pivotal to the online giant’s groundbreaking series, earned her a Golden Globe as the drama’s watchful and hauntingly beautiful puppet-master. Relaunching herself as one of Hollywood’s finest female performers in the process, she is no longer waiting for the phone to ring.
Waltz with Bashir director Folman, however, has no regard for this resurrection. Indeed, in his latest experimental feature, Wright’s professional future is so bleak that she must surrender it to technology.
Living with her kids in a cool converted aircraft hangar next to an airport runway, Wright spends her days looking after her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a charmingly ethereal, kite-obsessed kid who is slowly going deaf. Wright’s commitment to her children has killed her progress, as underlined in the opening minutes by Harvey Keitel’s good-natured agent, Al.
With few prospects on the horizon, the slyly named Miramount Studios propose a deal. In exchange for a handsome sum she must allow herself to be digitally mapped. The resulting ageless clone, possessed of her face, her body and her voice will be studio property, a plaything to be utilised in any number of risible blockbusters. The real Robin Wright, her corporeal form, will simply cease to be of use. It is the only way to stay relevant, sneers studio supremo Jeff, played with standard enthusiasm by Danny Huston, a man who long ago cornered the market in smooth but threatening bigwigs.
She eventually agrees and it is at this point that Israeli-born Folman’s singular leanings emerge. The vaguely unsettling sci-fi tone — coming from left field, admittedly — is heightened by the sight of the great strobing globe into which Wright steps for her conversion from celebrity to nobody, dressed simply in a figure-hugging suit à la Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man.
In truth, the early scenes are merely a conservative lead-in to the film’s hand-drawn second half, an illusory blitzkrieg evoking the gorgeous visuals of Folman’s aforementioned documentary about his experiences in the Lebanon War. In contrast to the hyper-stylised realism of that seminal work, The Congress’s fluttering last hour is a thing of exquisitely rendered, if bewildering, dystopian darkness which signals the director’s near boundless imagination.
Twenty years on from the original agreement, and with that contract due for renewal, Wright — the non-digital version — is summoned to Miramount’s entirely animated Futurological Congress (that being the title of Stanisław Lem’s loosely followed source novel) to publicly endorse the company’s newest invention.
It has formulated a drug which allows anybody to live as anything in a fantasy world. What charm there is dissipates as the toxic product escapes its corporate confines to infect the wider public, generating a planet of drones, each lost in a personal nirvana.
From there, Wright, depicted as an elegant, elder iteration of her solid state, must battle to escape an increasingly pointless subconscious, a leering freak show, brilliantly realised by Folman through an intensely immediate kaleidoscope of colour and shape. With the help of her avatar’s first creator, Dylan (voiced, unmistakably, by Jon Hamm), she trains her focus on locating her son and daughter in this crazed Shangri-La.
If it all sounds wildly unpredictable, such impressions are merited. Fusing live action and a host of animation styles is one thing but the spiralling nature of the latter represents a strangely compelling arc in itself. The trippy netherworld’s knowing peculiarities will grate with many but the scale of Folman’s curious ambition is remarkable.
If there is a consistent subtext then it is unfortunately obscured by this oppressive psychedelia. That said, the theme of familial love is discernible throughout, becoming even more pronounced as Wright attempts to stay tethered to that which is tangible. This will decide her path.
Ultimately, the film’s strongest commentary is reserved for the movie industry’s own callous approach to feminine self-worth. Thus, in spite of the roiling verve of its later sections, The Congress excels in the sobriety of that initial real-world setting. It offers a chiding indictment of a business model that throws a woman on the metaphorical slag pile once she hits 40 and while this may be a somewhat self-serving sermon from the likes of Wright, it is, nevertheless, a message worth sending.
Subverting any notion of unsuitability, Wright carries the perplexing mass of Folman’s vision on her shoulders. She might look like a modern-day Julie Christie but there is a wisdom to her countenance that no computer may ever replicate.
An edited version of this article was first published here.