The Congress is bat-shit crazy and just as enjoyable; taking you on a rollercoaster ride through a Disneyland dystopia, while telling the moving story of washed-up actress Robin Wright. The narrative truly is meta and referential, addressing itself to the way we consume entertainment and the future of these forms; but it also produces some genuinely original and provoking tableaus.
Country: France, Israel.
Director: Ari Folman
Screenplay: Ari Folman. Novel by Stanislaw Lem.
Runtime: 122 minutes.
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Danny Huston.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: An ageing actress with her best opportunities behind her is given one last chance by her studio; have herself scanned, so that they can digitally recreate her in any way they wish. The offer is tempting, but it comes with the proviso that she never work again. Reluctantly accepting for family reasons, she unintentionally stands at the dawn of a new form of entertainment – and a brewing revolution.
Festival Goers? See it.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Review: Friends, I have seen the future – and unfortunately, Yoko Ono is still around. Of course, no description is ever going to do justice to Ari Folman’s The Congress; it is a bat-shit crazy ride which combines Stanislaw Lem inspired sci-fi with classic Walt Disney with a Philip K. Dick acid trip. Created through both live action filming and animation, the film is wildly ambitious and original – falling short of greatness, but becoming an honourable and interesting failure in the process. The film wants to be a commentary on the total nature of consumption and the direction of future entertainment; showing just what an industry completely run by the demand of the consumer might look like, without any limits applied. Technology is paramount, and the choice of the creators is not; The Congress paints a future where actors, directors, and cinematographers no longer make artistic choices but where studio producers modulate products to meet the demands of said consumers. That the results are horrific, but also quite hilarious, go without saying – and Folman certainly is successful in translating a lesson about the totalitarian nature of a true communist dictatorship of the people into a lesson about the totalitarian nature of a true capitalist dictatorship of the people. It falls short of a damning critique of the entertainment industry simply due to its more brave and outlandish elements, as well as the easiness of that target; but it does produce something so original that it can only be taken for a crazy alternate future caught as we flip quickly through the channels of alternate futures. It is certainly worth seeing.
“Robin Wright” is the centre and protagonist of this film; a name that absolutely has to be put in scare quotes, as the film – in its more didactic moments – wants to be a contemplation of the existence of the artist. She is washed up, with a family she loves but a difficult son, and given the opportunity for one last contract from the studio (winkingly named “Miramount,” on the bodies of the dead and gone). This last chance is tough; a full scanning of the actress which will give the studio the ability to insert her into future films in any way they desire, without her participation. She takes it, with a twenty year contract; as it offers financial security and a chance she is unlikely to have otherwise. There’s a lot of meta commentary here, courtesy of Robin’s agent played by a still Wolf-ish Harvey Keitel; Wright’s early, starring career is canvassed (e.g. The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump) and then her slow decline into supporting roles and television work, supposedly due to her bad choices as an actress. The studio claims they can undo all of this; making her young again on screen, and a star. The catch being that only they reap the gains; Wright will be forbidden from acting again, in the futuristic equivalent of a non-compete clause. The film then jumps twenty years, to illustrate (literally) the future of entertainment and consumption this technology has created; and a now aged Wright journeys to the studio’s equivalent of Disneyland. What ensues is a revolution worthy of the fall of Rapture from Bioshock; as a people’s uprising occurs in the most incongruous combination of Karl Marx meets Walt Disney. It has to be seen to be believed.
Based on Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, the film certainly remains true to the spirit of that book. Hallucinogenic drugs are used to control the population, but in this case through the medium of entertainment and desire. When her room at the hotel plunges into darkness, Robin is unhelpfully told ‘everything is in our mind - if you see the dark, then you chose the dark’ in a not too subtle statement on the people getting the entertainment they demand and deserve, consequences be damned. The bread-and-circuses message aside, a lot of The Congress is a little inside baseball as it shoots indiscriminately at targets within the entertainment industry – executive producers are animated as slick zoot-suited hucksters, communicating entirely through the numbers that display on their sunglasses; the studio entirely replicates the standard actor bleeding heart interview, full of absurdities and decrying the abandonment of robots; the movie trailers shown on the side of giant zeppelins is suitably vacuous. The references are too numerous to count; with Robin channelling Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove at one point (yes, that iconic scene), a Steamboat Willie shout-out, a product announcement in Albert Speer’s proposed Volkshalle for Germania, a maybe Tom Cruise, a prison uniform with a number 1 on it in reference to the equally crazy conclusion of The Prisoner, of course The Demolition Man has to be included in a commentary on mindless entertainment, and more. Folman has sandwiched everything he has wanted to say about the industry, and every homage possible, into this bursting at the seams film.
That’s partially why it falls short of its goal; as a truly stinging critique requires a more relentlessly focused attention span. The script also paints itself into an awkward corner; performing so many narrative leaps that it is unsure of where to land, and so ends on the sort of note parodied in Arrested Development’s ‘The Ocean Walker.’ No matter though, because it’s a great ride – thoroughly original and entertaining. A master like David Cronenberg may be more skilful with issues of entertainment and consumption, but Folman proves that he can out-reference and out-joke even the mighty Dan Harmon. In doing so, he produces a hallucinogenic trip worthy of Gaspar Noé’sEnter the Void, something that the aforementioned Philip K. Dick would be proud of.
Rating: Four stars.