The way our culture produces, consumes, and shares information and entertainment is changing with vertiginous speed. That indisputable fact not only provides the subject of the freaky new sci-fi fantasy The Congress, but also accounts for the film’s no-longer-that-unusual release strategy. (Ari Folman’s half-animated head trip has been made available on iTunes, Amazon, and on demand weeks in advance of its Aug. 29 theatrical release.) The Congress imagines a late-late-capitalist dystopia in which a corporate media behemoth unsubtly named “Miramount” has effectively usurped control of all human consciousness. Stuck as we are in the August doldrums of summer movie season (which now stretches from the first thaws of April well past Labor Day), it’s hard not to feel that we live in that future already.
Every summer, Marvel blockbusters and Marvel-approved takeoffs of Marvel blockbusters and unasked-for-by-anyone Transformers sequels and other mass-produced global entertainments choke up the Cineplexes like kudzu. Some of them are sharp and exciting, and some of them are awful, but collectively they leave ever less room for the cinematic wildflowers—the small-scale indies, foreign-language films, and challenging work of the sort that got many of us excited about film in the first place—to spring up. This week, plans for the next six years’ worth of Marvel/DC sequels were ceremonially unveiled, with release dates staked out years in advance of the projects even having titles. Contemplating that vast stretch of future time, a barren zone marked only by the regular reappearance of as-yet-unnamed buff superheroes, fills me with a sense of futility previously engendered only by the Book of Ecclesiastes.
But those of us who despair at the current state of summer-movie monoculture would do well to keep an eye on the cracks in the sidewalk. Video-on-demand cable channels, independent streaming-video services like Fandor and MUBI, and more familiar sites like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes are rapidly becoming the first places to look for offbeat, inventive new releases. Yet they’re resources I often forget to avail myself of, in thrall as I am to the familiar who-will-win-the-weekend? model that privileges theatrical release over all other means of distribution.
As Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer approaches $5 million in VOD grosses, though, it’s clear that from a business standpoint theatrical release is not the only path for an unusual and ambitious new movie to take. The experience of being in a darkened theater with strangers looking up at a screen will never lose its thrill, but there are times of year when much of that territory has to be ceded to the SUV-hurling robots and chimps on horseback. And so this week I’m taking a pass on the multiplexes, which sort of seem like they’re turtles all the way down, to write about three new films, available via various home-delivery systems, that deserve to worm their way into our Miramount-controlled brains. Maybe they’ll free up enough space in there to help us imagine a different cinematic future.
Ramon Zürcher’s debut film The Strange Little Cat, true to its title, is both the strangest and the littlest of this alt-movie lineup. Only 72 minutes long and set almost entirely within the confines of a small Berlin apartment, this quiet yet unsettling film accompanies a middle-class family over a normal Saturday as they prepare and serve a meal for some extended relatives. The mother (Jenny Schily)—the main character, to the extent there is one—seems inexplicably distracted and short-tempered as she interacts with her children, two teenagers (Luk Pfass and Anjorka Strechel) and a girl of about 8 (Mia Kasalo.) It’s clear that, however Mom feels about the evening’s visitors (who include her own, now ailing mother), she has something weightier than dinner prep on her mind.
But the characters’ inner lives and motivations are just one of many forces at play in The Strange Little Cat, which is as much a film about the movement of objects and bodies through a space as it as about the relationships of the people who live there. Zürcher films the cramped interior of the apartment with a curiously neutral camera, which he often leaves in one place for a while, letting actors, kitchen implements, and occasionally the orange tabby of the title move in and out of the frame as the action takes place just off-screen. The framing and blocking appear offhanded and casual at first, but as the film goes along the careful thought that’s gone into each of Zürcher’s directorial choices becomes clear. The circulation of common household objects seems to take on a strange significance; repeating motifs emerge that suggest, rather than explain, an overarching story or theme. (In several instances, one family member attempts to share a private recollection with another, only to be interrupted by a whirring appliance or ignored completely.)
We don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to be noticing about this apparently normal day, which makes us notice everything. At first I felt frustration at The Strange Little Cat’s refusal to cohere into a recognizable genre: Was it a drama or a comedy? Was the free-floating sense of anxiety ever going to turn into actual suspense? But once I settled into the film’s idiosyncratic rhythm, it struck me that these are, to some extent, the kinds of questions that the VOD experience helps viewers to take in stride. When it doesn’t cost $30 plus babysitting to see a new movie, maybe it’s easier to allow yourself to experiment with something genuinely new like The Strange Little Cat, which issues a bracing challenge to its audience’s assumptions about what movies are or ought to do.
The Congress, loosely based on a 1971 novel by Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), takes that challenge to cinematic received ideas even further, explicitly (and trippily) pondering the technological future of movies. Folman, who also directed the harrowing animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), here combines 2-D animation with live action—not by mixing actors and drawn characters Roger Rabbit–style, but by creating two distinct worlds, one “real” and one virtual, that the characters move between. In the real world, Robin Wright plays a present-day movie star who, though also named Robin Wright, seems to have had a very different career trajectory than the top-of-her-game House of Cards star we all know. Now 44, the fictional Robin has burned every bridge in the industry thanks to her unpredictable on-set behavior and off-screen breakdowns. No longer able to land the ingénue parts of her youth, Robin lets a slimy studio exec (Danny Huston) convince her to sell her digital image to Miramount. She’ll be scanned in a special machine that can record her every expression, movement, and gesture, then re-create her in infinite future roles, artificially youthened and frozen in time—with the restriction that she must promise never to do any in-the-flesh acting again.
What at first seems like a sly sci-fi satire about Hollywood’s obsession with female youth and beauty turns into something considerably weirder and deeper in the film’s second half, when—20 years after signing away her image—Robin makes a journey back to what was once Miramount studios, now part of a protected “animated zone” where people can live virtual lives as the avatars of whatever characters they choose. As she crosses the border, the movie itself abruptly shifts from naturalistic live action to the freakiest animated universe imaginable, with roads made of undulating rainbows, limbs that morph into wings, and passersby who can shape-shift from one pop-culture character to another just by drinking the right chemical compound. The studio wants one more concession from Robin—the right to sell her image in drug form, allowing other people to virtually become her at will. And they’re not planning to let her leave the animated zone until they get it.
The Congress’ second half can get perceptually exhausting as the story burrows down one rabbit hole after another: Are we inside Robin’s hallucination, or has the animated world completely taken over the real? Is the man she’s beginning to fall for in the drawn world (voiced by Jon Hamm) really enamored of her, or only of her much-reproduced on-screen image? And if Robin’s terminally ill son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has also crossed over to the animated side, is there any hope the two of them can find each other amid the hallucinatory, ever-shifting chaos?
The Congress’ vision of the future of entertainment as a kind of invasive biotechnology—cosplay in drinkable form—seems both ominous and weirdly proximate. Don’t “immersive” filmmaking techniques and interactive gaming universes already take us a good bit of the way there? Folman comes off as pessimistic about the prospect of creating meaningful work, or finding a meaningful life, within the frantic blur of commercially produced images through which his characters wander, changing identities as they go. But his film itself contradicts that pessimism by remaining true to its own stubbornly noncommercial identity. Unlike, say, Lucy—a recent mainstream release that also featured a futuristic mind-altering drug and a shape-shifting heroine—The Congress asks sci-fi questions that resonate in complicated and sometimes painful ways with our contemporary lived reality. The oneiric, at times frightening animation style suggests some weird amalgam of the work of animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi and the late Japanese manga artist Satoshi Kon, who also loved burrowing into worlds within worlds. There are moments—like a gory assault on Miramount HQ by an army of rampaging-yet-adorable cartoon characters—that are at once terrifying and darkly funny. And I will forever treasure The Congress for being a movie in which a 64-year-old animated female protagonist, gray bun and all, gets to have sex with a hunky young animated Jon Hamm.
Charlie McDowell’s first feature The One I Love, released on Amazon this week in advance of its Aug. 22 opening in theaters, is considerably warmer and more approachable than either The Congress or The Strange Little Cat, but the demands it places on the viewer’s intelligence make it equally well-suited for at-home viewing, where you can rewind to puzzle out an opaque scene or a plot twist you might have missed.* This tiny three-person chamber piece concerns a young married couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) whose therapist (Ted Danson) sends them away for the weekend to a cabin in the country he often recommends to his patients. Once they arrive, surreal events begin to pile up, beginning with a night that she recalls the next morning as their most romantic and sexually satisfying in years—while he claims, with shambling apologies, not to remember it at all.
The One I Love pivots around a series of reality-altering twists that it’s best to know nothing about going in. So I’ll only reveal that this admirably compact romantic comedy (scripted by Justin Lader) also functions as an exploration of marriage, intimacy, and identity. Duplass and Moss are winning enough actors to distract us from the occasional archness of the high concept—though it must be said that the film’s various interweaving versions of reality don’t so much get tied up at the end as just kind of left to fray around the edges. Still, any romantic comedy with this kind of philosophical ambition—not to mention a half-animated sci-fi fantasy about a sexagenarian movie star, or the artfully framed chronicle of a banal-yet-portentous day in the life of a German family and their cat—is unusual enough to be worth staying home from the theater for. Maybe the future won’t be as barren as I thought.
Correction, Aug. 8: This article originally misstated the theatrical release date for The One I Love. It will be released on Aug. 22, not Aug. 15. (Return.)