The Congress

The CongressSynopsis: An aging, out-of-work actress accepts one last job, though the consequences of her decision affect her in ways she didn’t consider.

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The Congress 8.0

eyelights: Robin Wright’s performance. the wonderfully trippy animation. the abstract quality of the picture.
eyesores: the abstract quality of the picture. Harvey Keitel’s performance. Danny Huston’s performance.

“Ultimately, everything make sense. And everything is in our mind.”

‘The Congress’ is a 2013 science fiction drama by Ari Folman (of ‘Vals Im Bashir’ fame), starring Robin Wright. Loosely based on ‘The Futurological Congress’, by Stanislaw Lemabout, it tells the story of a middle-aged actress who is pressured into selling her likeness to a movie studio so that they may replicate and market her at will in future motion pictures and various other media.

It’s an existentialist tale that explores and observes the impact that this choice has on “Robin Wright” (played by Robin Wright), who is faced with an uncertain future. It also confronts the current state of the film industry as well as the general masses’ escapist proclivities. It’s a thought-provoking dystopic fantasy adventure motion picture – a truly rarissimo concoction.

I don’t quite remember when I first heard of ‘The Congress’, but it immediately caught my attention – something that few movies do these days, given the sheer number of them being produced. There was just something intriguing about the idea of an actress playing herself, yet not really, of someone blurring the lines between reality and fiction in a tale that could have personal relevance.

That it was both live action and animation added to my curiosity, because this added an extra layer to this fact/fiction combo. I had no idea how it would play out, but I was certainly curious to find out. Adding to this is the fact that it stars Robin Wright, whom I quite like, and that the one or two comments I read about it were largely favourable. I put it pretty high on my list of movies to watch.

In fact, within a week of receiving it from the local library, I was settled in with a close friend to watch it. I rarely get to a new picture so quickly, and it was worth it.

‘The Congress’ begins with a great close-up of “Robin Wright”, being pummeled with criticism off-screen by her agent (played by Harvey Keitel). As the camera pulls back, her discomfort is palpable; you immediately wonder why she would subject herself to such abuse. It’s an impressive performance that Wright matches later in a humiliating meeting with the studio head and legal counsel.

Another terrific moment comes when “Robin Wright” gives in to pressure and decides to get the scanning done ASAP, to get it out of the way. The whole point is to register all her reactions, so as to recreate them later, and “Wright” has go through the gamut of emotional range in a short amount of time. To help her, her agent explains to her how he got in the business… and how he used her vulnerabilities.

Ouch.

In the movie’s audio commentary, Folman explained that he and a few crew members did a tour of an actual 3D scanner to prepare for ‘The Congress’. Apparently, there was something unsettling about the whole process; he felt exhausted after just a minute of it, said it was a soul-sucking experience. Similarly, Robin Wright said that she felt dead afterwards, when she too went through the process.

Hollywood studios currently use these scanners primarily when they have to use a CGI likeness of a film’s actor for stunts or that sort of thing. But, apparently, some studios do it strictly for archival purposes – perhaps to use later on. It makes you wonder just how much of themselves actors are selling in their quest for money and fame. Could they refuse to be scanned, or put limits on its use?

And this is the central concern of ‘The Congress’, which fast-forwards twenty years and finds the movie-making industry gutted (Miramount Studios barely employs anyone anymore and their offices are empty) and pretty much run by a few executives with the help of computer artists – who are the ones making the movies with the likenesses they paid for and copied. It’s dehumanized and desolate.

Are we moving towards a virtual world where everything is artificial? It looks that way. People have virtual friends that they never meet, express themselves online instead of in the “real” world, work remotely, buy things online, pay for media they will never own, …etc. Our heroes are famous for being famous (not for achieving anything), our information is processed/filtered, our lives are packaged.

And we’re not willing to put the brakes on to think about it. We’re rocketing towards this, whatever it is.

In ‘The Congress’, people escape their reality into (literally) a cartoon existence where they can be anything or anyone they want. Through an olfactory-triggered illusion, they consume identities instead of being themselves and living their lives. Naturally, the average person being highly uninspired and envious of others, many of the same personas are in constant use – no one is original, nor themselves.

The rest of the movie takes place in this cartoon dystopia, in a virtual city called Abrahama that can only be visited after taking an olfactory drug. The picture is highly critical of this new world, poking fun at the soullessness and meaninglessness of it all – with notable moments like “Robin Wright” seeing her CGI likeness on the red carpet spewing off platitudes, her public persona wholly dependent on writers.

Poor ones, ironically enough.

It also questions one’s perception of reality. If everything is an illusion, how can you trust your senses, how can you navigate the world with confidence? This could easily be a criticism of our current state of affairs, since we’re moving towards a society where everything we are is marketing, packaging, illusion. What are we to believe, when there is nothing to believe in? What is the point of any of it?

The picture wades into political waters, as most dystopic pictures do, with seeds of revolution bearing fruit and chaos emerging from it. None of it is particularly heavy, but it’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to call for a return to the real – especially when we see the world as it is, not as it is experienced in the shared delirium that most of the population escapes to. It’s a philosophical and political statement.

It’s as much of a thought-provoking picture as it is a feast for the senses: the whole cartoon sequence is a splendour to see, and there’s even a superbly dynamic soundtrack to go along with it (The filmmakers recorded it in one of the then-current peaks of technology, Dolby Atmos – which was sadly not available in most cinemas, let alone on DVD or blu-ray. Hopefully it will be available one day).

This contributes to a rather affecting scene in the first act, when we discover that “Robin Wright”‘s son (whose condition and its impact is unclear) is gradually losing his sight and hearing. The audio was muddied and murky just to express what he was hearing – especially when he’s being tested by the specialist. This helped us understand what he is going through, how his senses are degrading bit by bit.

This led to a pretty confusing scene in which the doctor fawns over the boy’s apparently ability to process information, saying that he’s decades ahead of everyone else. What in the world does that mean, exactly? He seemed to suggest that, in the future, people would be assimilating things differently. But, either this wasn’t properly explained, or I missed some bits. Or it was beyond my ability to comprehend.

Still, aside for that unclear segment and the abstract quality of the last act, ‘The Congress’ is a must-see motion picture – ideally, in a cinema (and, worst case scenario, on a large screen with a proper surround sound system). It’s a sensorial delight, yes, but it’s also intellectually stimulating: it dares us to confront a potential future reality and questioning its value before we get caught up in its tidal wave.

It’s the best type of science-fiction film. Experience it.

Date of viewing: August 18, 2015

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