One of the most talked about (and seemingly divisive) films of the festival so far, Ari Folman’s The Congress – the Israeli director’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir – is an ambitious, trippy spectacle that mashes up movie-biz satire and future-shock sci-fi to mesmerising, if muddled, effect.
Screening in the Director’s Fortnight strand, this part-live action, part-animated curio stars Robin Wright (in an emotional and extraordinarily committed turn) as, er, Robin Wright – an ageing Hollywood star whose career is drying up fast.
That is, until, she’s offered one last job by the smarmy executive (Danny Huston) of ‘Miramount Pictures’ ("I don't know what you're talking about!" Folman playfully replied when quizzed on the company's familiar sounding name) – to have her every likeness and mannerism scanned into a computer to create a digital version of herself owned by the studio to cast as they see fit.
The catch? Her immediate retirement from the acting profession.
It’s an offer she’s rightly inclined to refuse – until the condition of her ailing son worsens, forcing her to take the paycheck.
Twenty years later, she’s summoned back to the studio for another, even more sinister offer. But before she can pass into their gargantuan, futuristic HQ to talk it over, she’s required to down a vial of a mysterious substance in order to enter an ‘animation zone’… And that’s where things get really messed up.
Based on Solaris writer Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, Folman’s mind-bending take on the source novel really is a film of two halves.
The first is a biting yet genuinely funny/moving mockery of Tinseltown’s many shortcomings, addressing issues of ageism, sexism and the threat of new-fangled technology on cinema as we know it.
The second is a more direct adaptation of Lem’s story, using hallucinogenic, Yellow Submarine-style visuals to portray a Matrix-like world where a psychedelic utopia covers up a much darker reality.
The transition is somewhat awkward but Folman just about pulls it off. Messy and uneven the future segment may be, but The Congress remains an original, thought-provoking headscratcher hybrid.
“I first read the book when I was a teenager – I was a real sci-fi buff,” remembered Folman when Total Film caught up with him to discuss the film.
“Waltz With Bashir was too much of a personal experience for me, especially travelling with the film and talking it about it so much, and I asked myself what do I want to do to get as far away as I can from that. Sci-fi is the best escapism and it’s my favourite genre in film, so I came back to this book. ”
And just because the film is part-animated, don’t go expecting the same gritty style as his previous effort… “The animation is really inspired by the novel,” Folman explained. “With Bashir, my obsession was that it would be realistic, but here you didn’t need realism. I wanted something very rough, very vivid, not like perfect Disney style. I was looking for something fresh.”
The Congress opens in the UK later this year.