The Congress (2013)

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A hallucinogenic fishbowl of Hollywood satire, quasi-autobiography and existential sci-fi (based partially on Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress), Ari Folman’s fourth feature is one of the most aggressively idiosyncratic films of the year, and destined to file among its most divisive.

Robin Wright plays herself in the rut of midlife, nudging toward an age when Hollywood turns its cheek to women (or relegates them to “concerned mother” roles). Reminded by her agent (Harvey Keitel) of “a lifetime of bad choices“, she reluctantly accepts a meeting with the brassy head of “Miramount” – a scenery-chomping Danny Huston – to discuss the option of having her image digitized and archived; for all eternity her persona will be a microchip insertable into any plot or genre.

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Wright at first huffs off the idea, her riposte registering as an opposition to the phallocratic, image-obsessed studio system in which actresses in their forties are afforded only enough agency to select their own projects. But Folman roots his Catch-22 proposition – which would demand that Wright retire and leave her career choices to a computer, but remain forever in her thirties – in hard sci-fi questions of identity and autonomy, implying that this new technology strips her not only of an artistic choice, but a moral one.

Sadly this idea remains underdeveloped thanks to the writer/director’s scatterbrained sense of narrative, which finds him leap-frogging ideas quicker than he can articulate them – see Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne, about a temperamental star who abandons a financially unstable production only to be replaced by a digitally engineered actress, for a bolder treatment of this initial premise (alas, a great actress-as-algorithm sci-fi, a feminist satire wrapped up in the glam of Hollywood, remains unmade).

Still, if overly blunt and wearing its parody in XL size, this portion of the film works best – largely for Huston’s pitch-perfect casting, his slick mogul playing like an amalgam of producers from his father’s era. In these scenes Folman focuses on the autobiographical aspects of Wright’s career, leaving the actress emotionally naked before his camera, and her beautiful work does a convincing job of articulating the interior schism between her instincts as both mother and performer – the fortune to be amassed from this deal may be able to save her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from going entirely deaf and blind.

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Finally she yields, and the film skips forward twenty years to find her retired, and her virtual doppelgänger starring in RRR (Rebel Robot Robin), an Aeon Flux-lite future actioner. It’s during this midsection that The Congress turns its head toward Lem’s source, as Wright and her surrounding world transform into a Yellow Submarine-style animation upon entering the hotel of the titular conference, a Miramount event promoting new avatar tech where she is due to be guest speaker. Wright, like the novel’s Tichy, drinks from a tap whose water contains a chemical alteration drug (unnamed here, but essentially the same “benignimizers”), and it becomes clear that the organizers may have darker intentions…

Here The Futurological Congress feels like a perfect allegory for the anonymous Hollywood production line – the latest innovation at the conference is a star milkshake, which will allow fans to drink their favourite actor or actress (recalling Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral, about a pharmaceutical clinic who inject viruses carried by celebrities into the bloodstream of fans eager to get closer to their idols). Lem’s world of induced benevolence, where obedience can be bottled and emotions controlled by the drug agencies, isn’t so far removed from the contemporary relationship between studio and audience, where information is drip-fed to accumulate a mass hysteria. The suggestion of online community and shared experience in this sense becomes a nonsense – we’re all just an anonymous white noise, a feverous hype static.

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In the cartoon world, the ‘ordinary’ folk are shapeless or semi-human, not unlike a mixture of Ralph Bakshi and Looney Tunes, but the ‘stars’ who litter the foyer, and the ‘stars’ the normals can become with the swig of a potion, are beautiful and perfectly formed. It doesn’t take long for this psychedelic world to lurch into horror and finally action thriller territory (albeit with 3-D gags), using Lem’s novel as a spring-board for an unlikely romance between Wright and her artist (Jon Hamm), the man responsible for inputting her emotions for the past twenty years.

Once again the idea is stronger than the execution, as Folman’s imagination runs away with him, ending up in conspiracy theories, time loops and a meshing of the real / animated worlds, invoking everything from Twelve Monkeys to Being John Malkovich along the way. Folman employs the age-old sci-fi conceit of using a futureworld to express our present anxiety of that future, and if The Congress‘s 2033 of star milkshakes and avatars are funny exaggerations of celebrity culture and post-Avatar filmmaking, they are so in a broad and obvious manner, and his schizophrenic plotting becomes tiresome rather quickly.

There’s much to admire in The Congress, but it ultimately feels more like the excited, spluttered-out pitch for a movie than the final realization of one, the experience of watching it noisy and discombobulating, and my memory of it as a sort of intellectual tumble-dryer of myriad odd socks, over-crammed and whacked up to the implode cycle.

Director: Ari Folman
Writers: Stanislaw Lem (novel), Ari Folman (adaptation)
Stars: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm
Runtime: 122 min
Country: Israel, Germany, Poland, Luxembourg, France, Belgium

Film Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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