The Congress (2013) – Review

Directed by Ari Folman
Written by Ari Folman from Stanislaw Lem
Starring Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Danny Huston

“Is it dark in here?”
“Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”
All very deep. But then again, Israeli film-maker Ari Folman doesn’t really do anything that could ever be described as professionally or creatively trivial. This is, after all, the man that brought us the Oscar-nominated animated feature Waltz With Bashir in 2008, a graphically arresting and undeniably politically motivated comment about the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. So, anyone with a more than passing interest in cinema, and particularly animation, would already be expecting if not the head-scratcher that this ended up becoming, then most certainly a cerebral challenge.
And Folman’s choice for his next project is, with hindsight, not as surprising you might at first think. Visionary Polish novellist Stanislaw Lem was already renowned for brain-hoovering philosophical fiction, with his novel, Solaris, already visited by the likes of Soderbergh and Clooney. The Congress, much like Solaris, chooses to grab humanity by the jugular, pull it close and stare deeply into its soul to see what it can find. Folman is very comfortable in this department. He has a history, see.
The idea at the heart of the plot is one that will have crossed many an actor, film-maker and movie geek’s mind more than once. With technology increasing at such a rate, just how long would it be before the need for actual actors becomes superfluous to requirements? Already we are beginning to see the seemingly endless possibilities that new developments in film-making can provide. If you’ve ever watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for example, and the ability of the film-makers to transform Brad Pitt into much younger than he actually is by some degree, then you will already know what Folman is trying to approach, and what Lem is not only hinting at, but positively shouting about here.
Robin Wright takes on the mantle of lead, playing herself of all people. The career of the Robin Wright on screen and the one in real life is difficult to part, but it would be common sense to imagine that if this were a parallel world, separated by events or decisions that could veer off in a number of directions, it would be safe to assume that this split is being suggested as quite recent as her actual curriculum vitae is referenced here as contained within the narrative’s backstory. This may come across as a little disconcerting to begin with, but Folman wants you uncomfortable, clearly, as things will get a good degree more confusing before he has released you back into reality.

The first hour of the film is compelling stuff indeed, fleshing out the idea that every performer’s time in the spotlight is limited and that these moments in the glare of public adoration are directed by not only age, but also by career choice. The Robin Wright represented here and her agent (Harvey Keitel) meet with the studio chief (Danny Huston) who tells her quite candidly that her choices in the past, after a glowing start to her acting career, have not done her any real favours. He concedes that she is still a star, but that it will not last. It is at this point, that he suggests digitally copying her, a new and developing process, allowing the studio to use her image in perpetuity for any acting job they choose. She would not even have to be there when they make the films as the difference between her and her copy would be indistinguishable. This would mean she could spend her valuable time looking after her son, who is slowly becoming both deaf and blind, yet still be a star, locked in time, never aging.  All she needs to do is agree, for a one-off fee, to never actually perform again, anywhere.

With technological developments as they stand currently, this is still science-fiction, but we can see as an audience just how close this possible reality is to becoming realised, and Folman handles Lem’s story deftly, with beautiful flourishes of Wright’s home life spent with her son and daughter.

And then we go forward twenty years, without any satisfactory explanation and quite abruptly, we are thrust into an animated world where Wright has now found herself, travelling to the studio’s Futuristic Congress, as poster girl for the corporation. What follows is a baffling dystopian cartoon that you feel quite sure will start to make sense at some point, but then it flits away again, just when you think you almost have a handle on it.

Folman’s animation here is a little too Cool World for the subject matter that he is trying to impress you with. Existential and philosphical angst notwithstanding, this is just a incomprehensible mess for large portions of the second hour that will make you wonder how you ever thought the fiorst hour was so impressive.

Wright’s performance in the ‘real’ world is fantastic and she truly remains an icon of cinema and will for some time to come, regardless of the intimation here with regard to her career choices and she should be applauded for her honesty in this regard, even if the finished product is probably not worthy of her gift. Keitel is underused but steals the show in one scene as he recalls his blossoming relationship with Wright as a young starlet. Huston’s lascivious sudio executive is just how every writer would have you believe this profession behaves, with little thought for humanity lurking behind an avaricious gluttony for profit.

As I said, the live action hour in The Congress is definitely worth your attention and enjoys some very well delivered performances, but the garbled mess of musings without so much as a coherent plot or navigable narrative wears thin all too quickly in the second, hallucinatory hour that will truly test your patience. A game of two halves, indeed.

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