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Review: “The Congress”

In the big wide world out there, consumption is one of the keys that ties us together. Not only are we literally required to consume in order to survive, but metaphorically speaking, we consume according to our interests, our passions. (There’s a reason why “binging” is such a popular way to characterize our habits.) And on the other side of the coin, we often speak of things that consume us: a job, a relationship, desire, pain.

Our relationship to that word is essential to the entertainment industry in particular. We consume the product, and those who make the product consume our money, watching it compound and compound. Consumption is just another word for a transaction, and just like a transaction, it means there’s a price involved.

In Ari Folman’s The Congress, we see these ideas in action. Robin Wright stars as a parallel version of herself, one whose early success in The Princess Bride quickly wore thin thanks to a fussy reputation on the set. With little-to-no chance of any future roles, her manager and a studio exec (from the cutely named “Miramount” studio) have just one last job for her: To be “scanned” and transformed into a digital format to be used however the studio sees fit. The deal comes with a boatload of money and requires a heavy promise: That Wright will refrain from any performance across all media for the rest of her life.

As Wright dons a bodysuit and parrots emotions to a device that captures her every expression, from happiness to heartbreak, it’s clear there’s new meaning in the idea of selling oneself.

Yet that’s only the beginning. The film makes a total departure in the second half, focusing on what happens two decades later at the Futurological Congress, a “restricted animated zone” where everyone and everything is, of course, animated. While there, she learns how her experiment from 20 years ago has evolved into a new world — one in which people can literally consume the image of anyone, Wright included, and embody them — rife with ethical complications.

As an alternate version of herself, Wright makes for a captivating protagonist with a performance that’s both strong and graceful. As she’s shown in any number of her works, Wright excels at speaking volumes with nothing more than a poised stance and calm expression — which makes it all the more interesting when she’s reduced to a vocal-only performance in the animated sequences.

As a personal fan of animation from Yellow Submarine to Futurama and Adventure Time, I have to admit I was truly thrilled by the first scenes in the restricted animated zone. Folman and his team clearly took pains to evoke a very particular blend of imagery, from ’20s art deco to ‘50s-era cartoon characters. (There even happens to be a yellow submarine that crash-landed in this alternate universe, a sight that made me grin in my seat.)

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit before it, The Congress is a bold, truly strange creation that, despite its shiny appearance, comes with a strong dark side. Sometimes it’s confusing, sometimes it’s messy, sometimes you don’t know what happened or if it even happened at all — yet it still feels skillfully put together. And most importantly, it feels like a truly different kind of cinema, and one that should be embraced.