The Congress

cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, and Kodi Smit-McPhee

director: Ari Folman

123 minutes (15) 2013
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Studio Canal DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Congress

Ari Folman’s debut feature Waltz With Bashir was a glorious mess. Ostensibly an animated documentary about Folman’s experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War, the film rapidly comes to focus upon Folman’s attempts to come to terms with the fact that his only memory of the war is of an event that could never have taken place. A flawed psychological detective story that starts to flinch and deflect the closer it gets to the possibility that Folman might have repressed memories relating to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Waltz With Bashir uses a variety of more-or-less realistic animation techniques to muddy the boundaries between truth and memory, resulting in an almost perfect recreation of the ambiguous shadows that most of us call memory. Folman’s second film The Congress finds him revisiting blurred realities with the help of animation but, while this very loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is certainly ambitious and technically impressive, it replaces the messy humanity of Waltz With Bashir with a meta-fictional cleverness that is just a little bit too intense for its own good.

The Congress is one of the most densely-made films that you are ever likely to encounter; every detail of the plot, characters, cinematography and art direction serves a deeper purpose and these currents of purpose draw you away from the story and towards the film’s sustained critique of Hollywood filmmaking. The film’s mechanical efficiency is evident from the very first scene, a beautifully rendered family portrait in which Robin Wright plays a fictionalised version of herself who is a devoted mother to both a spunky teenaged girl named Sarah (Sami Gayle), and an endearingly tragic and glider-obsessed little boy named Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

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Aside from charging the film’s emotional batteries by establishing Robin as a devoted mother facing the possibility of watching her own son go blind and deaf, this opening scene is also packed with a dense thicket of cinematic references designed to position The Congress in the same mind-bending territory as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York.

Usually, whenever critics start writing about films in purely mechanical terms (’emotional batteries’) it means that those mechanical systems failed to work. Films we like are deeply moving whereas films we don’t like are cynical and manipulative. The Congress serves as an interesting counter-example to this rule as while the film is undoubtedly cynical and manipulative, it is self-aware about these characteristics and uses them as part of Folman’s critique of contemporary Hollywood.

The plot kicks off when Robin asks her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) to approach the studios in search of a proper paycheque. Al dutifully returns with a generous offer but the offer involves Robin giving up acting for at least 20 years. The problem is that it has been decades since Robin turned heads in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and her track-record of walking off sets, refusing to do PR and turning down offers at the last minute means that the studios are reluctant to work with her again. However, while the studios do not want to work with Robin, they recognise both her reputation and her skill as an actress. In an effort to square the circle, the studios offer Robin a contract that will allow them to create a digital version of Robin Wright who will appear in every film, TV series, advert, and PR stunt the studios desire. Part of the scanning process involves Robin Wright standing in a high-tech motion capture suite laughing and weeping as Al describes how he first became an agent at the age of ten and how much sadness he felt every time Robin’s fears got in the way of her becoming a star. As powerful and affecting as this image may be, it also serves to draw us away from the plot and towards the suggestion that Hollywood is a cynical institution that mirrors human emotion only to then exploit it for commercial ends. As Al shouts at Robin when she proves reluctant to sign the deal: You have always been their puppet!

The second act opens 20 years later as an elegant older Robin drives across the desert on her way to re-negotiating her contract at a studio-owned hotel. Arriving at a checkpoint in the middle of the desert, Robin is informed that the hotel is situated in an Animated Zone and that she will need to imbibe some chemicals in order to visit it. The Animated Zone is another piece of thematic signalling as it references Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but while Zemeckis’ Toontown was a place in the real world inhabited by animated characters, and threatened by a heartless corporation trying to impose economic reality upon a magical kingdom, Folman’s Animated Zone is a chemically-induced virtual reality built and operated by the corporations with the intention of having it replace reality.

The Congress takes its name from a darkly humorous science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem entitled The Futurological Congress. The Congress does away with Lem’s blend of caustic satire and slapstick silliness as well as his concerns about over-population and cultural balkanisation, whilst maintaining the bones of a narrative about chemically-induced utopias and someone being projected into the future by an overdose of hallucinogens. Lem’s novel is driven by the fear that governments will begin using chemicals to keep their populations under control and that this use of sedatives and mood-altering chemicals will eventually give way to the development of a chemically-induced consensual reality that would sit atop the real world allowing people to starve, freeze, and work themselves to death without ever becoming aware of the treacherous situation in which they find themselves:

“The year is 2098… with 69 billion inhabitants legally registered and approximately another 26 billion in hiding. The average annual temperature has fallen four degrees. In 15 or 20 years there will be glaciers here. We have no way of averting or halting their advance – we can only keep them secret.” “I always thought there would be ice in hell,” I said.

As might be expected of an author writing in a communist country, Lem echoes the leftist concern that escapism is an impediment to social reform as people who spend their time escaping the real world are less likely to want to change it for the better. This distrust of escapist forms combines with Folman’s cynicism about film to provide The Congress with a slightly lopsided intellectual spine.

Having arrived at the conference, Robin learns that she is one of only two Hollywood actors whose brand has survived the transition to all-digital entertainment. Still famous thanks to her digital facsimile starring in a ubiquitously popular science fiction franchise, Robin is expected to sign a new contract and deliver a speech launching the studio’s plan to extend the Animated Zone across the entire planet. Horrified by what she has seen and learned, Robin refuses to sign a new contract and delivers a stinging speech about the inhumanity of Hollywood’s corporate masters, thereby triggering a terrorist assault by those who would oppose the corporate replacement of reality. As the corporate police wade in, they fire chemical weapons into the crowd in an effort to force them back into compliance. Caught in the crossfire, Robin overdoses on hallucinogens to the point where her doctors decide to put her in suspended animation for 20 years in the hope that future doctors will be able to cure her. Just as evocative as the opening act, the second act harvests the dense thicket of references and draws them up into a critique not only of corporate Hollywood’s hegemonic tendencies but also of actors who participate in the blockbuster process by signing away their image rights allowing corporations to give their exploitative business practices an attractive human face.

Perhaps realising that his film has become rather densely intellectual, Folman spends the third act trying to humanise his narrative by drawing on the emotional batteries that were charged so efficiently in The Congress’ opening scenes. Projected even further into the future, Robin finds herself adrift in an animated world that knows no limits. Sculpted by desire and expediency, the city of New York has been redeveloped as a sun-kissed playground full of hanging gardens and effortlessly sensual cartoon citizens. Desperate to reconnect with her family, Robin asks for the help of Dylan (Jon Hamm), the animator who ran the Robin Wright brand during the 20 years she turned her back on Hollywood.

Dylan is sceptical about Robin being able to find her children and so takes her on a beautifully-animated tour of the world intended to seduce her and make her stay in the Animated Zone beside him but while Folman draws on romantic flight montages like those of Superman and Aladdin, he also replicates the inhumanity at the heart of these cinematic moments: just because an airfield explodes behind someone while they are having sex, it doesn’t mean that their love is real. Unconvinced by the introduction of a cynically contrived romantic subplot, Robin begs Dylan for a drug that will help her return to the real world in the hope that such a return will help her find her children.

The Congress is a difficult film to evaluate as it is a cynical and manipulative film designed to draw our attention to the fact that Hollywood films are incredibly cynical and manipulative. The sheer density of the text draws us up and away from the drama and encourages us to engage with the film on a purely intellectual level as Robin is never more than ballast in a film that feels more like an animated meta-textual essay than a conventional cinematic narrative. Readers of science fiction who have encountered the work of Adam Roberts will be familiar with this effect as both Roberts and Folman produce beautifully constructed and achingly clever works filled with neat little ideas and interesting things to say that really make you think but rarely make you feel.

As someone who likes clever texts and adores the work of Adam Roberts in particular, I feel that it is necessary to point out that intellectual shock-and-awe carries as much of a visceral punch as emotional shock-and-awe, but the element that does let The Congress down is the quality of its ideas. Strip away the brilliant animation, clever cinematic references and neatly introverted structure and you are left with a film whose critique of escapism is no more sophisticated than that of a 45-year-old comic science fiction novel. Folman certainly deserves credit for turning his guns on film executives and actors rather than nondescript corporations but, for all the artful cleverness of the way that Folman expresses his ideas, there is a very real sense in which we have heard them all before.

Tolkien famously said that the only people who object to escape are jailers and the traditional response to critiques of escapism is that whether or not escapism makes the world a worse place is a less important question than whether or not escapism makes people happier about their lot in life. The Congress ends amongst scenes of people queuing for soup in bombed-out factories while their chemical avatars sup fine wines in elaborate ballrooms. Defenders of escapism will point out that while these people are living in terrible conditions, they are experiencing bliss and luxury.

Surely conditions are only terrible in so far as they have an impact upon the quality of people’s lives? Lem was aware of this argument and The Futurological Congress tries to ground its anti-escapism position by invoking an ice age that will destroy humanity if humanity does not return its attention to the real world. Folman does a fantastic job of showing how corporations encourage escapism and how escapism disconnects us from the real world but he struggles to make a case for why this separation should even matter.

Instead of an ice age, Folman relies upon Robin’s connection to her kids to ground the argument and provide the film with moral substance by suggesting that real family ties could be a reason why you would choose not to plug yourself into a virtual reality that made you blissfully happy. Folman wrestles with this idea by having Robin act upon a mother’s love for her child rather than a woman’s love for a man she met in cyberspace but, rather than unpacking this choice and explaining why the real world is inherently better than a virtual reality, he concludes the film by expressing a cloud of ambiguous imagery that answers precisely nothing.

There is a very clear sense in which I am being unfair to The Congress as I am writing about a dramatic film rather than a philosophical essay but Folman’s decision to critique dramatic artifice whilst engaging in dramatic artifice means that The Congress draws your attention away from the drama and towards the film’s flawed philosophical argument. The Congress is a brilliant piece of animation and a clever piece of cinematic film criticism but in order to convince it needed to be either more humane or more intellectually rigorous. Trapped somewhere between drama and non-fiction, The Congress frustrates as it engages.