09/12/2014 04:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Congress Challenges But Thrills

I'm going to save you 10 bucks, but it's not on a movie. Take an ordinary piece of paper and cut out a section about a centimeter square. Then place it on your tongue and go see The Congress. Sure as death and taxes, at some point in watching this movie you'll swear there was something on that paper.

This is the third full-length movie from director Ari Folman, who won a slew of awards for his second, 2008's arrestingly emotive documentary Waltz With Bashir. Like that film, this one is a combination of live action and cartoon animation, though here the story is fictitious and favors far more real life visuals than the earlier release.


On a superficial level, The Congress is the story of Robin Wright (played by herself), who at the age of 44, faced with a sick son and a history of "bad decisions" in the industry, agrees to be "scanned" by not-so-subtly named "Miramount Pictures": meaning she's digitally recorded, and will be reproduced in any film they choose.

Although the scanning technology is relegated to the beginning of the move (and becomes obsolete in ways that can't be explained without spoiling things), it's a device that's been latched onto by critics and used to judge The Congress as a hollow or heartless indictment of the movie industry. Which is a criminal offense in missing the point of a movie.

Once The Congress gets past a fairly tired re-utilization of tropes in the scanning storyline (which can feel like a train driver barely awake at the controls -- or worse, a recreation of April's dud Transcendence), it delivers in spades on questions larger and far more interesting. Questions about what the essence a person is, what truth is, and what makes people so desperate to escape reality -- if that's even an absolute thing. This is undoubtedly the aim of both the director and Stanislaw Lem, whose novel The Futurological Congress the film is based on.


The opening scenes aren't a total loss -- they're saved by great performances by Harvey Keitel, Danny Hutson, Robin Wright, and even relative newcomer Sami Gayle, whose slyly impudent, just-treading-on-a-parent's-patience performance of Wright's daughter is poignant enough to pluck the nerves of anyone who's ever met a teenager.

After the story is wound in the opening, viewers have but a short wait to what can only be called an orgasmic ode to Max Fleischer on a healthy dose of drugs. From their broken beginning, the animated sequences flower into a no-holds-barred trip that bends reality in half and bounces mercilessly on the curve like some kind of Dr. Seuss character.


For all their glory, these scenes will likely prove the film's biggest challenge for viewers. They are unquestionably psychedelic, resolutely unusual, and can at times feel impenetrable. Folman does scatter almost painfully literal signposts throughout, but at over two hours long, The Congress can at moments feel like you're slogging through a swamp with no end in sight.

Keep watching anyway. Less than a vital story element, these animated lengths are a tool that Folman is using to larger and better ends: to alienate audiences from the person of the actors, make pleasure feel purposefully cold, and if nothing else at all, serve as a canvas for some first-rate voice acting.

In the end, by subverting reality, going around and beyond it, The Congress manages to circumvent the brain and deliver meaning straight into the heart. Though Folman asks viewers for a necessarily two-handed commitment to the conceit, once it's given he makes more than good on his promise of the vision of a lifetime.