Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir premiered in Cannes in 2008 and was the people's choice for the coveted Palme D'Or, which Sean Penn's jury gave to Laurent Cantet's The Class instead. Folman was vindicated with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and the fact that we haven't heard from him in five years has nothing to do with him resting on his laurels. His follow-up, The Congress, a semi-animated fantasy begun some five years ago, opened Directors' Fortnight at this year's Cannes today, and it's easy to see why it was so time-consuming.
The film begins with a telling credit – “Robin Wright At” – before the title appears: The Congress. We cut straight to Wright, playing herself, being lectured by her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel). Al tells her that she is being made the offer of a lifetime, a job so important it will also be her last. Wright refuses, but eventually, brought low by her son's debilitating illness, decides to see what the offer is. A meeting with slimy industry executive Jeff (Danny Huston) reveals the deal: Miramount Studios plan to motion-capture Wright and sample every possible element of her personality. After that, the real Wright will retire while the studio puts her virtual self into any film, sitcom or commercial it chooses. Initially she refuses, but, concerned for her son, she finally agrees to the process.
Of the film's two-hour running time, a good half takes place in the real world, but after 50 minutes Wright, heading to something called “The Futurist Congress” breaks open an ampoule, sniffs it, and is taken into a strange “animated zone”, where she becomes what she describes as a cross between “Cinderella on heroin” and “an Egyptian queen on a bad hair day”.
In this limbo world, which mashes up the hand-drawn style of Max Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons of the '30s and that of more recent animations like Ren & Stimpy, Wright is presented with a second contract, one that goes even further.
In principle, this sounds like classic second-movie meltdown, and with a few more wrong steps it could easily have been another Southland Tales. Folman, however, keeps things simple, playing the movie industry for laughs while setting up a much more serious story about Wright and her family. Wright, as ever, is exquisite, and it's not only unusual to see a film that deals so clearly with the issue of sexism in movies, it's practically a miracle that the protagonist is also female.
The Congress slows down a little in the animated section, perhaps because this is where we lose the charismatic Wright to her 2D avatar, but this is still an extraordinary and very touching film that exists somewhere in the twilight zone between the existential brainteasers of Charlie Kaufman and the psychedelic wonders of Hayao Miyazaki.
There are no confirmed US or UK release dates for The Congress just yet, but given how well it was received in Cannes we expect that to change in the near future.