Israeli director Ari Folman’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed autobiographical war movie Waltz with Bashir (2008) isn’t much like that film, nor is it likely to resemble anything else released next year (the film is set for theatrical distribution in North America by Drafthouse Films and Films We Like in 2014). This is always a good thing for a film, even when the film in question isn’t successful. The Congress might not be ‘successful’ in retaining a coherent message or thematic focus through its always-absorbing 123 minutes. By all signs, it also diverges significantly from its source novel, Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress (1971). But it’s also as surprising a near-masterpiece as I’ve seen this year, and one destined to be critically divisive.
Folman’s film starts off as dreamily-shot satire, with a fictionalized Robin Wright (playing herself) salvaging her dying acting career by selling her identity to ‘Miramount Studios’ so they can scan her and make an ageless, digital copy of her to use in perpetuity. These early live-action scenes feel off-kilter in their mix of domestic drama and barbed but obvious pokes at Hollywood and its treatment of women, complete with slimy studio exec Jeff (Danny Huston, marvellously creepy as always) playing the devil goading middle-aged Wright into bartering her soul for money to take care of her children, especially son Aaron (a convincingly fragile Kodi Smitt-McPhee) who is slowly losing his hearing and eyesight.
This beguiling first act closes with a remarkable scene of Robin being scanned. In it, Wright moves through a spectrum of human emotions to the accompaniment of a moving monologue by Harvey Keitel, playing her agent Al, in what might be the most powerful, vulnerable performance he’s given in years. With Keitel and Wright working in tandem, it’s a fairly breathtaking duet of acting. And just as the film makes you sit up with this scene, it launches 20 years into the future and jumps off its own rails as an older Wright attends a “futurist congress” at the “animated zone” of Miramount’s adult Disney Land, the Abrahama Hotel (all visitors and inhabitants take an “ampule” placing them in an augmented, animated reality where they can be anybody and have anything they desire, including ‘actors’ like Wright). From there, the film’s scope opens up even further.
Folman and company’s commitment to making a philosophical, idiosyncratic sci-fi epic is unexpected and dazzling. The decision to portray the augmented reality of the future using gorgeously retro visual styles and hand-drawn animation aided with CGI (recalling pre-1950s animation, Ralph Bakshi and the more recent work of Sylvain Chomet) ironically makes Folman’s vision more immersive than live-action. There are no visual effects flaws to break the suspension of disbelief. As a result, The Congress creates such a vivid sense of wonder at exploring a future human society gone alien that it outshines almost any recent big-budget, live-action CGI spectacle I can think of (Alfonso Cuaron’s fall blockbuster Gravity is an example of how to do the latter well). Folman’s collaborator and animation director Yoni Goodman (who also worked on Waltz) and their team of animators and artists deserve special mention for the beauty of their work here, best witnessed on a big screen. Robin’s odyssey through the future is pure dream, and it’s the rare film that perfectly captures the fluid universe of dreams, outside linear time and anchored only to visceral human emotion and unfiltered imagination. There is the dread of nightmare here too, the fear of never waking, of death, of the afterlife, all appropriately accompanied by Max Richter’s mournful score.
By the flickering of its many indelible images The Congress draws a line straight and true from imagination to death, from our love of augmenting reality (through language, construction, art, technology) to suit our desires to our deep fear of animal solidity, of mortality and decay. It’s where the film jumps from satirizing celebrity as wish-fulfilment to a broader exploration of art and media as the dream of civilization as it dies and is reborn, over and over. When Folman attempts explicit commentary or didacticism, the film falters into confusion. This is because its implicit cautionary message about humanity’s dependence on illusion is muddled in with an exuberant joy at the illusory arts that’s evident in every wondrous frame of its animation. That might well be the point, of course—that the arts are threatened with consumption into a veil of corporate-dictated consensual distraction, of continuous information and tactile stimulation rather than specific art forms. Hence studio exec Jeff’s assertion at the congress that cinema is a “a relic” of the last millennium. The Congress is both a celebration and a dirge.
The film is, then, a magnificent visualization of artifice–art, mythology and technology–as the human afterlife, in a world which has already died. If this sounds ridiculously ambitious and broad, it is, and it’s the reason the film doesn’t stick a smooth landing. The final act dissolves the wonderment of illusion to provide an ironically illusory (in our reality, since it’s a movie) look at the ‘truth’ of time and devastation, at the lack of sustainability in humanity’s endeavours. Pulling away the animated curtain to take a look at a more familiar live-action future also raises innumerable logistical questions after the unhinged psychedelia of the ‘other’ world, which is a blow for a film as surreal and unmoored to physical reality as this one. It’s a sequence both inevitable and disappointing, if somewhat redeemed by a haunting final montage that restores the film’s centre to Wright’s fear of loss and death and the afterlife (all related back to her son Aaron) rather than that of human civilization.
Wright is excellent here despite being animated most of the time, bravely shouldering the burden of being used as a symbol for everything that celebrity and artifice represents to humans. It’s her best film role in a while, which is only fair in a story that co-opts her identity to explore its themes. The cast also includes Paul Giamatti as her son’s doctor, and Jon Hamm as a smitten psychopomp of sorts, his mellifluous delivery giving real poetic weight to sometimes necessary exposition.
The Congress may not be very thematically coherent, but it has myth-making down perfect. It’s a welcome surprise to discover that director Folman’s talent and ambition extends to the kind of thoughtful and ambitious sci-fi cinema that seems more at home in the 1970s. Anyone sceptical of a new Lem adaptation that can even remotely compare to Tarkovsky and Soderbergh’s brilliant takes on Solaris owes it to themselves to see The Congress. It may be messier than either of those films, but it makes up for that in the audacity of its beauty and ambition. Whether or not Folman and Yoni Goodman return to the genre, The Congress will remain a bold, memorable addition to millennial science-fiction films.