sun 08/12/2019

The Congress | reviews, news & interviews

The Congress

The Congress

Ari Folman takes a swipe at Hollywood in a sci-fi combining animation and live action

An animated Robin Wright in Ari Folman's highly original sci-fi 'The Congress'

Director Ari Folman burst onto the scene with his brilliantly realised, quasi-autobiographical Waltz With Bashir, an animated feature that navigated between dreamscapes and reality to explore the personal trauma arising from witnessing the massacres at Lebanon’s Shabra and Shatila refugee camps as an Israeli soldier. His follow-up feature, The Congress, is highly original and fizzing with ideas. But without a similarly gripping central narrative to keep it anchored, it remains somewhat emotionally uninvolving, instead provoking the head-scratching conceptual interest of Inception or The Matrix.

It doesn’t help that it’s a film of three largely unconnected parts. The first is a social satire in the vein of Her set in the near future that explores the implications of contemporary technology taken one step further. Robin Wright plays a version of herself, a 40-something former movie star whose career has stalled due to her “lousy choices”, now living in a converted hangar at the edge of an airport with her spunky teenage daughter and dreamy young son, Aaron, who suffers from a syndrome that will ultimately leave him deaf and blind. She is approached first by her agent (Harvey Keitel, pictured below right) and then by a menacing studio head (Danny Huston, who as usual makes off with every scene he’s in), with a proposition: to have her every expression and gesture scanned so the studio—called Miramount, an object lesson in how the movie industry’s fast-changing landscape quickly dates any satire of it—can use her ageless cyber-image however it wants without her actual participation. It’s a complicated premise that requires a lot of explanation before the story proper can actually get going.

the congress harvey keitel

20 years later, Robin’s cyber-self is the star of a popular franchise and she is invited to a swanky Miramount-owned hotel in the desert for a high-powered convention. Once on the grounds, she takes a pill and suddenly everything goes gloriously psychedelic, with live action abandoned for colorful, kinetic, often beautiful animation that’s kind of a cross between Max Fleischer and Peter Max. In this bubble of drugged privilege, everyone presents themselves as whatever screen idol, fantastic creature, or version of themself they want to be. Robin forms a relationship with the animator who’s been working with her scanned image all this time, a John Cassavetes lookalike played by Jon Hamm (though not making him a Jon Hamm lookalike seems like a terrible waste).

In the third part, the film becomes a quest story, with Robin determined to see what has become of Aaron. She returns to the un-drugged real world, which, in the tradition of so many cinematic dystopias, is a grey, grim, graffiti-covered struggle for survival. It isn’t until this final section that Robin becomes an active rather than passive main character, driving the action instead of merely being acted upon, and as a result her story becomes more compelling.

In its consideration of to what extent reality is objective and to what extent a construct of the mind, The Congress resembles a pop-culture version of Solaris, perhaps unsurprisingly considering both films are based on Stanislaw Lem novels (the book is called The Futurological Congress, which sounds less like a lost episode of The West Wing, but perhaps “futurological” was considered too challenging a word to put in a title). This largely European production pours scorn on the formulaic Hollywood model, but the director’s fecund, ambitious vision might have been better served by a dash of some traditional movie storytelling.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for The Congress

 

It’s a complicated premise that requires a lot of explanation before the story proper can actually get going

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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