Genre: Animation, Drama, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Ari Folman
Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Like all forms of art, it’s imagination that drives film. When screens across the country are clogged up with Simon Cowell spin-offs and giant marketing franchises masquerading as entertainment it can sometimes be easy to forget this simple tenet. Thankfully, not everyone thinks only in profit margins. Some people want to provoke thought or tap into deep rooted emotions while others look to dazzle. Ari Folman wants to do it all. Five years in the making, The Congress borrows from Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress to blend live action and animation together in a whirlwind of visually astonishing ideas. In only two hours it packs in enough to warrant countless return visits.
Given where Folman ends up, it all starts off in relatively straight forward fashion. Robin Wright, playing a loosely real version of herself, has made a career’s worth of bad decisions. But the future is coming and her studio (Miramount) offers one final contract that means she will never need to work again. In fact, it expressly stipulates that she will never be allowed to work again. In exchange for a small fortune they will scan her, gaining complete rights over her physical appearance. Why mess around with temperamental and more importantly aging actors when they can use a digital replica to make any film they want for as long as the contract allows.
So far, so familiar. It’s not the first time Hollywood has come under attack, although the ferocity with which Folman lays into his target is refreshingly novel. This is no inside joke played out with a wink and wry smile. It’s a full force assault on a corporate world propping itself up on the twin pillars of money and youth. This aggression is tempered by a rich seam of emotional depth running through the heart of the film. Robin’s son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a debilitating illness that will eventually rob him of his sight and hearing. His doctor (Paul Giamatti) tries to find a positive but he’s fooling no one. It’s this illness that persuades Robin to sign the contract leading to a spellbinding scene where her agent (Harvey Keitel) coaxes a series of emotions from her while laying both their feelings bare.
If The Congress had continued along this route it would likely go down as one of the great Hollywood satires, but Folman is hunting big game. After signing her rights away for 20 years, Robi n disappears to care for Aaron. Re-emerging after this time has elapsed; she attends the Futurist Congress where Miramount is revealing its latest innovation. In this future world, people can slip into an animated state where everything is as they imagine it to be. What follows is a dazzling experience as animated Robin tries to break free, and then navigates her way through a new world where people can assume the forms they want, and live out their lives in a shared hallucinatory dream.
Folman’s animated world is a kaleidoscopic construction of staggering scope. The imagery is striking, often shocking, and always beautiful. Colours dance across the screen as objects shift and sway to the rhythm of Folman’s imagination. Cars morph into amphibious boats, arms turn into wings, oceans rise and worlds fall. Strutting around this environment is the one of the weirdest collections of famous figures ever to grace the screen together. Where else have Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Jesus, Zeus and Magritte’s The Son of Man painting come to life shared the stage together?
For all the visual flourishes – and there are many – The Congress is a film of ideas. What starts as an attack on the film industry develops into so much more. Folman delves into issues ranging from the commoditisation of people, the role of technology and the merits of removing ego from our daily interactions. So many threads are torn loose that the film practically demands the audience returns to continue untangling them.
It’s an intense and sometimes overbearing experience, the rush of ideas hard to keep up with at times. So much is thrown into the mix that occasionally Folman spreads himself too thin. The mechanics of his world are explained in a transitory way while characters float in and out with airy swiftness. A love story with Jon Hamm’s animator (himself only seen in animated form) also feels artificially induced. This is where Wright comes to the fore with a central performance that anchors The Congress through weaker moments. Her single-minded hunt for Aaron in the future world is a thing of devastating beauty.
When Folman does occasionally fall short there’s no shame. Propelled by an abundance of ideas, his sights are set ambitiously high. That The Congress doesn’t always hit the target is no disgrace. By aiming for the stars it soars high above anything else this year. Maybe it will come back down one day but for the time being Folman has touched greatness.