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DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman
FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti, voice of Jon Hamm
PLOT: Film actress Robin Wright agrees to sell the rights to her image to a studio which will use the captured data to showcase an eternally young avatar in their productions. After 20 years, the producers invite her to extend the contract, and she travels to the meeting of a futuristic congress where all the participants ingest a chemical that allows them to invent their own reality and become anyone. When the congress proposes sharing this drug with the masses, Wright rebels, but her resistance is put down, and another 20 years on, she surveys the world that has resulted.
- The Congress is loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 dystopian novel “The Futurological Congress“; Folman describes the novel as “more as a source of inspiration, rather than the basis of the screenplay.“
- Folman’s previous film, Waltz With Bashir, is a member of the 366 Weird Movies Canon.
- Folman originally conceived the central role for Cate Blanchett and the part of Dylan for Keanu Reeves.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The trip through the animated landscape of Abrahama City is rife with psychedelic visions and eye-catching creations. The scenes within the animated universe are densely populated with caricatures of the famous and celebrated, representing alternative identities whom a disaffected humanity have chosen to take on in place of their own. Naming them all would be impossible, but I’d like to offer a particular shout-out to the person who decided to become Magritte’s apple-faced businessman. But the image that stays with you is a lonely and scared Robin Wright standing alone in the middle of a large and inhuman motion-capture dome, presenting a prism of emotions as the computers capture her every nuance. It’s an ironic manifesto for the value of human acting, as Wright the actress manifests the uncontrolled feelings of Wright the character.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Entrance to Abrahama City, Robin grows wings
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Animation has always reveled in its power to bend reality, making it an ideal medium for fantastical visions and deep dives into the imagination. The high-wire act that The Congress has to walk is literalizing animation’s attempt to slip the surly bonds of the real world. It’s not enough for this fantasy landscape to be trippy; it has to be a logical extension of the very real world being abandoned. It’s only appropriate that a movie star, the very avatar of a flesh-and-blood figure creating something artificial for our amusement, would be our guide. The film deftly juxtaposes the two worlds, each commenting upon the other and dramatizing the wonders and perils of our ongoing quest for escapism.
Original trailer for The Congress
COMMENTS: The most recent episode of the excellent podcast Imaginary Worlds (it’s like 99% Invisible for science fiction and fantasy tropes) is about the phenomenon of VTubers, online content creators who assume digital personas. Some just enjoy the technology, others have deeply personal reasons for wanting to obscure or revise their identities, but all are seduced by the powerful opportunity to be someone else.
The Congress understands this impulse, even as it laments the costs. We are introduced to a Robin Wright who is completely at the mercy of forces around her: a frustrated agent, a soulless Hollywood executive, a dismissive family, and perhaps most brutally, her own youthful image staring back from a poster of The Princess Bride. This Robin (who is positioned to be considerably weaker than the genuine article) is at the end of her rope, so her final surrender to her virtual fate is a certainty. (The final push is accomplished via a stunning monologue by Harvey Keitel in which he surreptitiously guides Wright through a panoply of emotions, feigning human connection as a way of pushing her to hit her marks.) The shock, then, comes from the realization that many, many more people feel ready to give up on reality without any of Robin’s hesitation.
And so we shift to the futuristic Congress where humanity is prepared to make the switch to permanent fantasy. Our transition into the animated world is appropriately psychedelic, with grinning yachts and dancing landscapes, like an even more surreal version of Eddie Valiant’s journey to Toontown. But it’s interesting how close-at-hand the ugliness is. Anything that breaks the illusion of becoming your favorite celebrity and living in a surreal paradise is criminal, and Robin’s speech calling for independent thought is met with fascist aggression. Which is why Robin’s exit from the cartoon world is even more potent and memorable than her entrance, as Folman executes a perfect match cut from the collection of ersatz celebrities to the dazed and disheveled occupants of the real world, demonstrating in a split second the vast gulf that has opened up between the fantastical dreamscapes humanity’s drug-aided minds have concocted for themselves and the dreary reality they are desperate to escape.
Many reviews have declared that The Congress is actually two movies, the live-action tale of a victim of the rush to digitize everything for profit and an animated bouillabaisse of whacked-out visions of a drug-addled future. Tellingly, those reviewers tend to lean toward one film or the other as the superior product (and the split seems to be roughly even). But The Congress is reliant upon these two disparate halves to make up a meaningful whole. The lamentable battle between aging and beauty alone would be singularly grim, while the dive into pure visual insanity would be trite and indulgent. Like salt and sweet, Folman’s film harmonizes to reveal the beautiful parts of life, but joyous and sad.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I’ve never taken an acid tab but after watching the trippy kaleidoscope of colour delivered here, I suspect I don’t need to… The psychedelic second section derails the finished product somewhat but it’s never less than absorbing.”–Padraic McKiernan, Sunday Independent (contemporaneous)
“A dystopian toon satire that evokes The Matrix by way of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Metropolis reconceived as a cautionary Hollywood nightmare, Ari Folman’s followup to the Academy Award-winning Waltz With Bashir can’t be faulted for lack of ambition or ideas. Coherence and a sense of humour maybe, but there’s something to be said for a movie that manages to baffle and dazzle in equal measure… Wright encounters not only all manner of Max Fleischer-like cartoon weirdness – including a lot of wish-fulfilment replicants of herself – but the intimations of a conspiracy aimed to topple the corporate powers and burst the bubble of toon tyranny.”–Geoff Pevere, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: The Congress (2013)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
“In the Future, Life Could Be a Dream” – Folman and animation director Yoni Goodman discuss their inspirations for The New York Times, August 20, 2014 (subscription required)
‘F*ck yeah, let’s go:’ Robin Wright Discusses Playing Robin Wright in ‘The Congress’ – In a contemporaneous interview with IndieWire, Robin Wright discusses her commitment to the film
“Won’t Somebody Sell Me Back to Me?: Robin Wright at the Congress”– Michael Harwick’s essay focuses on the film’s attitude toward its star and toward the infiltration of cinema into daily life.
“The Congress and the Slow Dissolve of Reality” – In 2021, Stephen Lee Naish reassesses The Congress‘ theme of the absence of free will in a society where fantasy takes precedence over reality for “25 Years Later”
LIST CANDIDATE: THE CONGRESS (2013) – El Rob Hubbard and Alex Kittle‘s original List Candidate review
HOME VIDEO INFO: The Congress was acquired by Drafthouse Films, who released it on DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy) in 2014. The commentary track is by director Folman during the live-action sequences; animation director Yani Goodman and production designer David Polonsky join him when the animation stars. The disc also includes a 10-minute interview with star Wright, a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, and a collection of trailers for other Drafthouse releases. It also comes with a small booklet of stills and notes from the director.
The Congress can also be purchased or rented digitally (buy or rent).
At the time of this writing, The Congress is also available on numerous streaming subscription services, including Disney+, Hulu, and Peacock, as well as ad-supported Tubi (and others).