A moving meditation on corporate commerciality in a dystopian future, The Congress is a remarkable film bursting with ambition, imagination and emotion.
The Last of Us by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Stepping out of the immeasurable shadow cast by the Oscar-nominated, Waltz With Bashir, Israeli director Ari Folman’s latest film is a breathtaking oddity that represents a timely sojourn from the politics of his homeland, Israel. Despite the worldwide acclaim of his film on the Lebanon War, it remains controversial in the increasingly right-wing State of Israel for its perceived pro-Palestinian leanings. Where it signified a very personal exorcism of demons past for former IDF soldier Folman; The Congress feels like the work of a liberated man with a hunger for escapism. Inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s ‘The Futurological Congress’, Folman fuses live-action and animation to form an acutely relevant yet wildly imaginative psychedelic future.
Robin Wright (playing a version of herself) plays an ageing actor with a reputation for making bad career choices. In spite of the success of her films, The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, Robin’s career is now in the doldrums until her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) approaches her with an unexpected offer. Miramount Studios want to scan her entire being into their computers and purchase exclusive ownership of her image as well as promising that she will always be a thirty-something in future films. She reluctantly agrees, motivated in part by it funding the best healthcare to her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who suffers from a disease that will cause him to lose his hearing. Twenty years later, a 66-year old Robin arrives at Abrahama – an animated city created by Miramount Nagasaki (now an all-powerful conglomerate) – to renew her contract. Here at ‘The Futurist Congress’, the studio – once the creators of films – now develop pharmaceuticals which will allow people to create movies in their own imaginations. Robin is presented with an ultimatum; to continue living in the real world where she cares for her sick 30-year-old son, or surrender to the lie of a chemical world.
The process of bringing Stanislaw Lem’s unusual novel to the big screen was a long and arduous one for writer/director Ari Folman. It began in the late ’70s with 16-year old sci-fi buff Ari Folman falling in love with the text, and deciding to adapt it cinematically years later in film school. The ‘easy’ part was adapting Lem’s novel by supplanting the chemical dictatorship of the text with a dictatorship of major Hollywood studios. The hard part was realising the psychedelic obscurity of the story cinematically. Empowered by the freedom and flexibility offered by animation on Waltz With Bashir – Folman was finally ready. The irony of the director’s struggle with the source material as well as the method tin realising his futuristic vision of the world is that despite its undeniable brilliance, The Congress remains a sometimes convoluted and unwieldy experience.
The most successful aspect of Folman’s adaptation of Lem’s story is the addition of an ageing actor at its center; the flatline for a film that frequently peaks and troughs in tone. Robin is a tragic and sympathetic protagonist, told in very blunt and coldly commercial terms that “you were the future, you were the answer. the whole package” by pantomime villain studio executive Jeff (a perfectly sleazy Danny Huston). Wright is enthralling as a character whose life and career is slipping away from her; the sense of loss and disillusionment is palpably evident in her eyes. One of the many highlights of Wright’s performance comes in a heartbreaking scene in a motion capture suite, where there is a real sense that her essence is being stripped away like a transfusion – her emotions the commodity of an intrusive transaction. Her failed career also parallels the failing health of her son Aaron whose degenerative disease will result in deafness. This serves as a genius plot conceit that perfectly rationalises her decision to effectively sell herself despite the consequence of never being allowed to act again.
The hand-drawn animation of the film is a glorious homage to the animation of the ’30s and ’40s, and in particular to animator and director Max Fleischer. The Animation Director on The Congress, Yoni Goodman, deserves huge credit for bringing the chemical world of Abrahama to life, harnessing the creative of animation studios in eight different countries in the process. In an effort to escape a bleak dystopian future, humans choose hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs to remove themselves from reality, instead choosing to live in a psychedelic utopia where they can do anything they want. The fluid and imaginative animation creates a world of fantasy that feels more unusual than anything photo-real CGI could muster. The peak of this wonderful animation is an awe-inspiring scene where Robin and Dylan’s (voiced by Jon Hamm) hands morph into wings that allow them to fly over an organic wonderland of cityscape, after which they glide to earth and embrace rapturously in the tangerine hue of exploding tanks (no, really).
That last sentence is by no means the strangest thing you’ll see while watching The Congress, and it’s in this unbridled fantasy that Folman’s film will most certainly lose some of its audience. There is a jumping-off point, a leap into the multi-coloured abyss of Folman’s imagination that you have to take, but it’s one that proves rewarding when the film comes to its conclusion. In addition to the unique visuals, Max Richter – who also scored Waltz With Bashir – delivers a delicate and moving score. His perfectly measured cues lend an achingly beautiful sense of melancholy and sadness to Robin’s journey from the present to the future and beyond. The score also features a rendition of ‘Forever Young’ which is sung by Robin Wright and is possibly the most evocative use of the song that you’re likely to see.
For a film bursting with imagination, The Congress is very much rooted in reality thanks in no small part to Robin Wright’s powerful and haunting performance. Exploring themes of grief, love and sacrifice, this is also the director’s indictment on the fragile state of cinema today; the power of Hollywood studios against the ‘rebel’s of independent filmmaking and what we potentially stand to lose through technological revolution. The film recalls the oppressive multi-year contracts imposed by major Hollywood studios on actors in the ’30s and ’40s, and envisions a return to such a dictatorial regime. The Congress is a magnificent and wildly ambitious oddity, it’s beautifully acted and animated and challenges the viewer in every way good science fiction should.
The Congress is released on 15th August 2014 in the UK