the-congress1[xrr rating=3.25/5]Let’s get this out of the way quickly and cleanly: The Congress is nuts. Robin Wright plays a fictional version of herself who sells the rights to her own image, captured, scanned, and frozen in time, hoping she can use the money and newfound time to take care of her Usher syndrome-afflicted son, who believes himself the heir to the Wright Brothers and blesses/curses the film with alternatingly blunt and poignant symbolism. 20 years go by, the film switches from live-action to animation and, in the future, chemical actors have become all the rage. In this dystopian world, take a whiff of a capsule or a sip of a milkshake and you too can be Robin Wright (or anyone else) or cast her in any story your mind makes up. People leave the real-world behind and inhabit some world in their mind, perhaps their collective mind, as whomever they wish to be.

Or something like that. The story is incredibly convoluted to begin with, and its detours into dreams, hallucinations, and a world whose realness is open for debate only makes it more so. It also strays very far from its source, so being familiar with Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress probably won’t help. The Congress, at a glance, is more about hermeneutics than escapism or art-for-art’s-sake, and certainly more than it is about telling a story.

That is itself a bit of a problem given the way the film calls on our sympathies. One look at the recent Planet of the Apes films and Avatar shows that the idea of scanning actors and making films around that digitized data is not terribly far-fetched; that it leads to a system in which writers mechanically churn out scripts while animators can never keep deadline is hardly a surprise—if you take the humans out of the movies the humanity goes with them. But until reality is uncovered about halfway through the movie, The Congress feels as mechanical and silly as the idea its protagonist rails against. Dialogue is frustratingly on-the-nose or else laughable; the performances, aside from Wright’s, are bad; and the movie begins to feel like a finger-wagging, doomsday-saying, anti-digital tirade. Admittedly, it is brushed up a bit by Ari Folman’s tendency to start scenes with close-ups of the face, which emphasize humanity (none more so than that of a tear-laden Wright, which begins the film). Additionally, his Stanley Kubrick homages, particularly one to 2001: A Space Odyssey), blend form with content, reminding us of the great films made the “traditional” way while also acknowledging the influence by that film’s cautionary tale—but the story and style induce eye-rolls a bit too often for it to ever feel like there is anything really at stake. Folman’s direction of live-action is tonally uncertain and, aside from the exceptions noted above, stale.

But when the film jumps ahead in time, something incredible happens. The beautifully hand-drawn animation, which took two-and-a-half years to finish, acts simultaneously as a formal retaliation to today’s CGI animation and gives the movie a soul. The Congress begins to function as the emotional, escapist, artistic medium that it spent its dull, heavy-handed live-action beginning advocating for. It isn’t just about pooh-poohing new technologies anymore; instead, it’s a genuine delight to see what humans, who meticulously drew every frame, can do to a movie. The shift to animation both serves the plot and paradoxically asserts the film’s humanity. That plot gets muddy, but it doesn’t matter so much because there is plenty to look at and the animation covers up dialogue deficiencies. Themes and ideas are articulated clearly through the film’s formal aspects, and the plot begins to recede right when it needs to.

In fact, the film gets better when the plot gets muddier and less explainable, as when Robin Wright gets some help from the head of the “Robin Wright department” at Miramount (yes, that’s a heavy-handed Miramax-Paramount portmanteau), the man in charge of placing her into movies like the Rebel Robot Robin cash-cow sci-fi series her image stars in. Wright begins to hallucinate, believing herself executed, only to be revived in the strange, imagined animation zone, where she looks for her son. This world is simultaneously alluring and repulsive; it is posited as an end-point for cinema, serving as an escapism so enticing that people abandon the real world altogether, but it is also the most sublime part of the The Congress, a giant reminder of the magic of movies, a fitting idea for the film’s most beautifully animated sequence. The couple traverses through different landscapes and towns, and Folman inserts a wonderful reference to René Magritte’s “The Son of Man” painting in the background of one shot for almost no reason at all. Almost…because the reminder of what great art looks like and how it pervades our collective consciousness seems crucial at this point in the film. On the strength of this section of the film, to simply call The Congress a love-letter to movies or a Hollywood satire is too simple. Instead, it alternately embraces escapism and rails against it, cinephilic one moment and cinephobic the next.

Indeed, the ending is a bittersweet, complex statement about the role of cinema and escapism amidst larger concerns of love and family. By the time the film gets there, it is easy to have given up altogether, to have tuned-out of the rushed, confusing plot developments and to have written The Congress off as an overambitious mess. That wouldn’t be altogether wrong, but it’s hard to find gold without doing a bit of digging, and for the all the messy, incoherent, or simple statements The Congress makes, those sequences, even those moments, that create a large, ambitious world make it all worth it.

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