[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival. The Congress opens today in limited release.]
Ari Folman‘s The Congress is a trip in more ways than one. Its visuals are lush and its ideas are rich. Like Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, the writer-director isn’t using animation only as visual expression, but also bolsters the themes by using the form in the first place. The filmmaker carefully builds his movie like a house of cards by trying to use the acting profession as a spring board and then expanding it to an exploration of self-definition, dreams, hallucinations, and detachment from reality. The film can be so head-spinning that it’s possible to get dizzy and lose focus, but when The Congress is on point, it’s as fascinating as it is gorgeous.
Robin Wright plays a variation on her real-world self by being described as a hot actress who used to have the world at her fingertips, but a series of bad decisions and bad behavior have left her with a dead-end career. Her hard-charging agent Al (Harvey Keitel) pushes her to take a rare opportunity from Miramount Pictures. The studio’s head, Jeff (Danny Huston), says that they will scan both her body and her emotions into a computer, and she will live forever young. The catch is that she can’t work as an actress for the next twenty years. Desperate to support her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who’s going blind and deaf, she takes the deal. However, the unforeseen consequences of her actions lead to a bizarre world where reality has been almost completely eradicated and replaced with endless possibilities—a future that’s both exciting and nightmarish.
Folman has a lot to say about various topics, and astonishingly his points all hold together. The movie begins with a sharp critique of Hollywood where the filmmaker observes a world where animators are the true power in the industry and actors are a fading commodity. It’s not a new observation, but it’s more pointed as this reality becomes truer every day. We use CGI stunt doubles, digital makeup, and slowly inch forward to where an actor doesn’t need to be more than 1s and 0s. It’s a shocking possibility not only for moviemaking, but also humanity. If we’re all the actors of our own lives, and movies are but a dream, then how far apart can the two really be? What happens when we’re nothing more than code and electrical impulses?
Again, this isn’t a new idea, and will sound highly familiar to anyone who has read Plato’s allegory of the cave or seen The Matrix. But while the Wachowskis’ movies played to a set of rules designed by machines, The Congress takes place in a world where the individual designs the rules. It’s a world that’s much closer to our present where people create online personas, pseudonyms, and inhabit fake worlds (you don’t need to look any further than an MMORPG). Eventually, our lives will be made to order and any change won’t come from struggle but from a simple shift (in the case of The Congress, it comes from snorting chemicals out of a vial).
This view of reality only existing in our minds would be painfully solipsistic if everything wasn’t tinged with sadness and fear (although thankfully the movie isn’t completely humorless). The animation in The Congress may be vibrant, but it’s also twisting, uneven, and gelatinous. There’s a little bit of Looney Toons in the mix, but the main style seems to be inspired by the more daring and surreal Felix the Cat. We’re rarely on terra-firma with The Congress, and it lends the whole affair an amount of uneasiness that the director seems to share. He wants to make the visuals alluring but the consequences are unnerving.
It becomes even tougher to hold on when Folman starts folding dreams into hallucinations inside an alternate reality. It’s almost enough to disconnect us from the emotional drama as the subtext begins to take over, characters explain the themes outright, and Wright (the character) gets lost in the shuffle. She still wants to hang on to her sense of self, and more importantly, find Aaron after losing him for twenty years. Without this emotional core, it becomes more difficult for the audience to keep its bearings. It’s like crossing an old rope bridge without holding onto the railing. You become more focused on not falling rather than making it across.
For the most part, Folman manages to keep us steady thanks to his confident direction and eloquent subtext. He’s attempting a philosophical extrapolation that feels like a cautionary tale. Comments like “Everything is in our minds” or celebration of “Neo-God creation” aren’t met with excitement, but with anxiety. The signs are all around us, and The Congress shows us a captivating, dangerous destination.