NZIFF – The Congress
A surreal philosophical head trip of a film Ari Folman’s The Congress looks at the nature of reality and identity through the lens of the actress Robin Wright who plays both a fictionalised version of herself and also voices an animated rendering of that character. Based in part on Polish writer-philosopher Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 satirical science fiction novel The Futurological Congress—this title is used for an event that Robin attends in a similar hotel setting to the book where her world begins to unravel and the nature of reality jumps another step along—Folman’s film is a much less personal project this time round than his 2008 pseudo-documentary Waltz With Bashir but no less thoughtful. The Congress is in the vein of a Philip K. Dick dystopian near-future (think A Scanner Darkly) and the film explores similar thematic territory to Lem’s work but with cinema/entertainment as the starting point for the technological advances which occur. In Robin’s world the fictitious “Miramount Studios” (a pointed portmanteau of Miramax and Paramount) is the coercive power. A common question is posed: if reality (or personhood) is defined by bunch signals interpreted by the brain, does it matter whether the origin is from the physical world or a chemical source? Or, what makes the physical world more real than virtual worlds? This is a question explored in a vast array of popular sci-fi works in the past two decades from The Matrix film trilogy to Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One with prevalent points of view slowly drifting over time from concrete to more ambiguous. The Congress sees Robin’s character journey through this arc as pragmatism adjusts her initial ideals in small increments as the story unfolds.
Folman again uses animation to stretch the bounds of his ideas beyond what’s easily achievable in live action and to provide a layering effect to the philosophical themes of truth/reality. In Bashir the filmmaker used the medium as a metaphor for the fabricated nature of both personal and corporate memory and as a way of illustrating how accepting unreality becomes a way of coping with awful situations. In The Congress the medium is actually sewn explicitly into the world of the film where a chemically induced animated ‘reality’ becomes the place where the bulk of the populace live in the film’s version of the future. The filmmakers avoid blending live action and animation but the few shifts between mediums are skilfully handled and the consequent changes in thematic and emotional tones smartly applied. The animation style pushes the into more surreal territory feeling less connected to reality than the style employed in Bashir.
Trying to traverse so much heady territory the narrative gets a bit muddied and turned around with Robin’s character anchoring the viewing experience. Wright does an excellent job on what must have been an intriguing and, at times, confusing project. Paul Giamatti is better than I would have hoped as Robin’s family ENT specialist Dr Barker used as the voice of reason legitimising the option of a virtual existence despite not taking that option himself. Danny Huston is a highlight as ego-laden Miramount Studio head Jeff whereas Harvey Keitel seems to struggle to find his character tone as Robin’s agent Al. Whatever its failings The Congress has a creative ambition that few films can match and is well worth immersing yourself in. May Folman continue his brand of idiosyncratic cerebral filmmaking, I’ll certainly continue engaging.
Rating: M Offensive language, sex scenes, and violence.