I have now seen every Best Picture nominee this year, and can rest easy knowing that Rooster Illusion has reviews of all eight of them posted and ready for our devoted and adoring audience. With that behind me, I can get back to my one true passion: watching movies that are actually good. That’s not fair, I guess. Half of the nominees are really good movies, namely Whiplash, Selma, American Sniper and, of course, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I feel like I truly set myself back watching Birdman, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything. And I guess Boyhood was worth watching… fine.
The point is, there is a specific type of movie that consistently attracts the attention of the Academy. That type is perfectly embodied by The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. We in the biz call them “Oscar Bait.” They are irritating, lazy, pointless, and empty, but tend to sport some decent performances. Even the good Oscar movies rarely do anything new with the medium.
Of course, doing new things isn’t always great, or even good. The angry film student that still hangs around at the bottom of my soul is kicking me to reference Breathless as an example of when mild experimentation is an affront to the senses. Duly noted, Film Student Chris, duly noted. Every so often, though, you get someone who’s absolutely and thoroughly possessed with a vision for something original, new, unique, and previously unseen. If executed properly, these movies can be utterly and unexpectedly brilliant. If executed poorly, then you get something a little worse than Breathless. Invariably, though, you get something that’s just absolutely fuckin’ nuts.
The Congress (2014)
The Plot: Having not known true success since her brief stint in the public eye in the 1980s, aging actress Robin Wright (playing a fictionalized version of herself), receives one last offer in the face of a fading career: digitization. Technology has moved beyond a point of dependency on flesh and blood humans, and animators can simply create live-action films from nothing. Jump ahead twenty years, and this technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, as it is wont to do. Entire sections of the world are animated, and people can enter these areas and become animated themselves, able to fulfil any fantasy, any dream, and be anyone. Robin questions the advance of narrative fiction as it swarms over reality, blurring the lines between the artificial and the world she once knew to be true.
Anyone familiar with Israeli writer/director Ari Folman’s previous film, the 2008 animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, should expect a certain amount of genre-bending and, indeed, medium-bending. Waltz with Bashir does astounding things to the constructs of documentary, animation, and war narratives, sparking debates worldwide as to what counts as a documentary, at what point a true story becomes fiction, etc. Regardless, most critics and audiences agreed on one thing: it’s a good movie. The Congress has not enjoyed such critical unanimity, because it goes beyond the groundwork of Bashir, and calls into question the past, the present, and the uncomfortable future of cinema.
The first forty-five minutes of the film appear rather straightforward, focusing on an actress who faces the end of her career in her early forties, and proposing the not-so-unbelievable idea of digitization. This is clear-cut, grounded soft sci-fi, content with its criticism of idealization of youth in the film industry, especially with women, and of the growing dependency on technology and computer graphics. At the heart of this narrative beats a hard-hitting, emotional character study. Robin Wright’s performance transcends expectations. Where lesser actresses would simply allow the material to speak for itself and let the weirdness fill in the gaps in character development, Wright recognizes that in playing an actress suspected of lacking talent, she must demonstrate the untapped well of skill in order to prove a point. Her performance is rivaled in quality by the magnificent Harvey Keitel, who plays her old-fashioned, loving manager. When was the last time you got to see him really act? Pretty much since the late nineties, Keitel’s been shoe-horned into type roles and bit parts that don’t exactly permit him to work his magic. Finally shedding the shackles of Tarantino quip-deposits, Keitel embodies a sad, lonely man whose entire world is disappearing around him, and who recognizes that once this digital thing takes hold, there will no longer be any need for him.
Sure enough, forty-five minutes into the movie, the world of the film takes a sudden plunge into animation and remains there for the next hour, and no more Keitel. If the movie is going to fail anywhere, it’s in this transition. As bold moves go, this has to rank among the boldest I’ve seen in a long time. This isn’t a Mary Poppins animated interlude, this is a shift in the very fabric of the film. “Oh, look at my wrist! I have to go,” said most viewers everywhere. Folman devotes so much runtime to the live-action buildup (nearly half the runtime, actually), and invests his audience in the people and visual style of the film, that suddenly turning the film on its head essentially has the same effect on any unsuspecting audience members. Though jarring, after about ten or so minutes of this, I was just as immersed in the animated world as in the real world, which is exactly the point of the movie.
The whole idea coursing through the veins of this film suggests that given the opportunity to live blindly in an artificially perfect heaven—where everyone has ultimate power over themselves, but no one does over each other, where truly the only limitation is the collective imagination of the inhabitants of the world, where reality and hardship carry no weight whatsoever—most people would accept that offer. So Folman works his magic; the animation style is so aesthetically beautiful and weird that it simply electrifies the senses. I am as intrigued by this world, I am as determined to explore it, as the characters in the film. At first, the transition feels belated and clumsy, but upon reflection, I realize how methodical and deliberate it is.
Folman then proceeds to question the human impulse towards instant gratification. I’m not a scientist, but I think things like the Internet, cell phones, TV, and Polaroid photography have damaged our capacity for patience. He essentially provides his characters with not only a source for instant satisfaction, but instant perfection. In a world where people can be anyone they want, almost no one is him or herself. Cultural idols of human greatness float through the background of every shot in the film. We can see Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, John Wayne, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Buddha, Cleopatra, Michael Jackson, Julius Caesar, Elvis Presley, the Dalai Lama and countless others fading in and out, morphing into one another as the occupant grows weary with one form of perfection. Here Folman criticizes our tendency for idolatry, not even really focusing on actual people, but eventually just on the images of the people and what they come to symbolize. Ultimately, that’s all this world offers: an image. By turning into the Buddha, one assumes the popularized visual representation of him, but I get the impression that Nirvana still remains out of reach.
The message and the criticism of The Congress of course only make up one small facet of the film. If it had nothing but social whining, I don’t think it’d be worth all that much as a work of art. Once again, Folman uses our expectations of media norms against us to serve his ultimate message. While struggling to process his cinematic innovations, it’s difficult to take in and comprehend everything else the film is trying to accomplish. When I finished watching it, I emerged in a sort of mental haze. I needed to think long and hard about this movie. Eventually I arrived at the following conclusion: it’s brilliant. The Congress seamlessly blends originality, creativity, disturbing commentary, cinematic vision, and a powerful, heartfelt human element without any pretense or self-aggrandizing. It is a singular piece of work, and definitely not for everybody. If this article made you think that this is your type of movie at all, stop wasting time. Go watch The Congress.