The Congress (2013)

Poster for The Congress

I’ve been curious about The Congress since I first heard that Israeli director Ari Folman was adapting Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel, The Futurological Congress. I read Lem’s novel many years ago, and all I remember is that I found it conceptually fascinating but that something about it really irritated the hell out of me. All I could really remember about it is that in the latter half everybody is taking hallucinogenic drugs, and it’s impossible to tell what’s real. As for Folman, he got a lot of love for his previous film, Waltz with Bashir (2008), so I was intrigued by what he might bring to the project.

Folman has taken the basic concept of Lem’s novel in a very different direction. The central character is now the actress Robin Wright, who is played by Robin Wright. (In the book the protagonist is Ijon Tichy, who was a character in many stories by Lem.) In the film, Wright has squandered the career that seemed so promising when she hit the scene as Buttercup in The Princess Bride, and now her agent (played by Harvey Keitel) is trying to talk her into letting Miramont Studio scan her and make films with this digital copy of Robin Wright rather than the real thing. Eventually Wright signs a contract allowing the studio to use the scan for twenty years, as long as they don’t make porn or science fiction with it. Flash forward twenty years, and Wright heads to the new location of the studio to renegotiate her contract in light of further technological change. At the gate to the compound she’s required to take a drug, and at that point she becomes an animated character in a surreal animated world where everybody is playing the character of their dreams. The new location of the studio is a virtual reality.

This is a very odd film, needless to say. It doesn’t hold your hand as it whirls through its high concept charades, and part of the difficulty is that everyone is wearing a mask of some kind, everybody is playing a role, and the true identity and feelings of the characters is hard to pin down. There’s another thread to the story about Wright’s children, and in particular her son, Aaron, who suffers from some kind of physiological defect that is slowly making him deaf and maybe also having other effects that make him some kind of genius. This is a bit unclear, as is the nature of his smart-ass older sister and Wright’s strangely passive but loving attitude toward both children. I was a little irritated by some of the shenanigans around the children, and by the brittle and manipulative nature of some of the early scenes, although in light of the transformations the plot goes through, the artificiality slowly begins to make more sense.

Over all I found the whole thing engagingly trippy, even if I didn’t always understand everything that was going on. The animation is absolutely beautiful, reflecting an influence of old Fleischer cartoons, underground comix of the ’60s and ’70s, maybe Kim Deitch’s channeling of Fleischer cartoons through an underground comix sensibility, and probably lots of European influences as well. (The animation was done in France.) I’d watch the movie again just to get another load of the fantastic design and artwork of the animated sequences. There’s a ton of stuff going on in the background, including many famous people showing up — no doubt masks for regular people who can be anybody they want in this dreamworld.

This starts out as more or less a satire of movie studio crassness and exploitation, riffing off the idea that the digital world will replace the troublesome analogue actors and technicians. In the second half it becomes something decidedly weirder and harder to categorize, but it circles around the elusive nature of identity in a mediated world. Wright has an affair with another animated character who claims to have worked in the animation department that has been making Robin Wright movies with her scan for the past twenty years, and we never meet the real person behind this animated character, yet the relationship between the two is very real and surprisingly poignant. Wright also needs to track down her son in a world in which she can’t know who he is now, and in which he no longer remembers who he was in the non-animated world.

It’s high concept stuff. Dauntingly so. I saw this at the Seattle International Film Festival, with a large crowd full of adventurous film-lovers, and as soon as the lights went up I heard the guy behind me say to his girlfriend, “You’re gonna have to explain that one to me.” I can’t explain it myself, but I’d like to see it again. It’s compellingly strange.

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