Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 January 2015

The Congress

Here's one you probably haven't heard of!

Ari Folman's The Congress is a quasi-science-fiction movie that is really an animated movie more than it is anything else. Hm. Maybe this is not the best way to start. Things get confused easily when I think about this movie, so I'll start with the plot.

In 2013, we follow the actress Robin Wright (played by Robin Wright). She is 44 and the studios want her to sign one last contract. She will be scanned by the studio so that they can put her into any movie they want without having to deal with the real actor's objections to things – no human problems. They will make her permanently 34 years old and she will be a movie star again, but it won't actually be her. It will all be computers. She will be animated. Wright signs the deal for various reasons, and they go about scanning her, but she stops the scanning in the middle unsure if she wants to continue – the whole thing is just too weird for her. This is the first 40 minutes of the film.

I originally thought this was going to be a movie about dehumanization, about the difficulties of being a person who is also a commodity, produced by studios and consumed by moviegoers everywhere. And it is that, but The Congress is about the future more than it is about anything else. And so it is about consciousness and drugs as well as consumption and commodification.

After the first 40 minutes, The Congress flashes a title card: Twenty years later. It's a shocking thing to do, and I feel bad for spoiling this moment here, but there's no other way even to begin to explain what comes next in the movie, and I still haven't even explained the title. Twenty years later, Robin is in her early sixties, and she drives to a "restricted animated zone" where she drinks an Alice-in-Wonderland-style vial and becomes animated. (At this point maybe you'll remember that the director, Ari Folman, first hit it big with the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (ואלס עם באשיר).) I won't tell you what happens next, but Robin is attending an event in an animated world called "the futurological congress" where everything is in one's head (or at least it would appear so).

The rest has been described by others as psychedelic, and that is a very good technical description, I think, but The Congress is a representation of what living through chemistry might be like, of an imaginary world made to seem very real through ongoing drug use. As a film, The Congress is less of a nightmare than it is a kind of Rousselian pageant of wonders: things are amazing in this animated world, and much is possible that is impossible in the real world. It is mind-boggling and scary as well as beautiful, and the future that The Congress shows us doesn't seem that far away, to my mind. This is also an entirely different take on The Society of the Spectacle, by a filmmaker that uses animation to its fullest. If The Congress is like anything, it is like the animated universes of Oshii Mamoru's Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊), Kon Satoshi's Paprika (パプリカ), and Richard Linklater's Waking Life (although it is nowhere near as soporific as Linklater's movie). This is smart, challenging stuff that imagines a possible future for us in critical, non-ironic ways.

Some other stuff: Robin Wright is superb. She has been doing the most challenging, interesting work of her career these last couple of years (did you see last year's Adore?) and she is a joy to watch. Harvey Keitel also gives an excellent performance in The Congress: his best in many years. And Max Richter's score is gorgeous and contemplative. This is great filmmaking, and Ari Folman is proving himself a real philosopher of media and human interaction with media. The Congress is one of my favorites of the year.