The Congress (2013): Written and directed by Ari Fulman. Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Danny Huston. Running Time: 122 minutes. Based on The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem.
Be neither disheartened nor encouraged by the fraction you see above. The Congress, the first film by Israeli director Ari Fulman since his 2008 masterpiece Waltz With Bashir, is a strange and enigmatic work that defies easy reviewing or explanation, and thus renders a numerical valuation of its cinematic merit even more futile than such a gesture normally is. I’m honestly not sure whether or not I should begin this review with a spoiler warning. I can’t delve into the themes of the movie without revealing critical moments in the little semblance of plot that it has. On the other hand, even if I were to lay out, in detail, all that happens over the course of the film, I highly doubt it would provide a satisfactory answer to the ever-dangerous question, “What is this film about?” Chronicling the story hardly captures the strange power The Congress has on the viewer- its bleak mutterings about the future of humanity, its arresting animation, the jarring shifts in atmosphere and setting, the haunting tones of the soundtrack (composed by Max Richter, who also scored Bashir). Nonetheless, I shall make my most valiant of efforts.
Robin Wright is, well, Robin Wright, an aging former star who, according to her agent and her contact at “Miramount” (a completely unhidden play on Paramount), made “a lot of bad decisions,” effectively ruining her standing in the industry. Now, living at the edge of an airfield with her daughter and son, Robin is offered one last chance- allow Miramount to completely “scan” her, allowing them to graphically insert her image into any and all movies they want to, guaranteeing it as a form of immorality for her. She doesn’t have to show up on set to act- the company merely decides what movies “she” will be in, and when the time comes, an animator will insert her image into the film. She, in the meantime, is banned for life from any stage appearances whatsoever, so that people don’t confuse her with the scanned Robin Wright (we learn, in a bit of meta-humor, that Keanu Reeves has already been scanned). Years after she accepts their terms, she is invited to a congress of sorts, to celebrate the birth of a new chemical drug that allows people to enter into a shared animated universe. Once in this shared universe, people can take further chemicals (obtained at “parties”) to change their “physical appearance” for a brief period of time- Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Buddha, Zeus, Jesus, and even Robin Wright are among the forms people in the background spontaneously change into from time to time. We soon learn, however, that some are adamantly and violently opposed to what this new technology could mean for humanity.
The technological and “chemical” capabilities that allow both the scanning and the shared animated world are completely unexplained, and rightfully so, since any attempt to justify the world of The Congress would immediately ruin the entire affair. This is not a film meant to be logical, to have a strict progression of cause to effect, to be “understood” in the way we “understand” most movies. It deliberately throws all it has at you, never stopping to explain itself, and never even bothers to care. It’s less of a story movie and more of an allegorical warning, or at least it tries to be, at times. There are snippets of dialogue that explain the journey Robin experiences in the chemical world (or do they? That, too, is open-ended), buried beneath a veneer of aggressively vibrant visuals that look like the spirit world in Spirited Away and a Dali painting mated, and the resulting offspring went incurably insane.
So I suppose the question that should be asked about The Congress is not so much “What is it about” or even “What should it all mean,” but rather, “Does the film, as an experience, work?” Does it leave you with something unforgettable, interesting, and engaging? Here, too, I suspect any answer I give will be hopelessly inadequate. Whether or not the experience of the film “works” depends entirely so on each individual and their tastes and expectations (more so than with most films). This is one of those movies that will most likely confuse or bore a great many people, and more than a few will probably hate it. Many who see it may walk away determined to get it out of their head as quickly as possible. Others will adore it. Some will call it a masterpiece. It will probably develop a cult following amongst avid psychedelic drug users (the first images of the animated world look like a purged 60’s fever dream- keep an eye out for Titanic and Moby Dick shout-outs).
My apologies, I realize I’m prevaricating. The only really important question for me to answer, as the reviewer describing this movie to you, is, “Did I like it?” And yes, on the whole, I believe I did. The acting in the real-world bits has moments of genuine power. Robin herself is diminished somewhat by the animated sections, where her cartoon face is able to show very little emotion, making her seem way too passive and calm in the face of a (literally) decades-long acid-trip. Max Richter’s soundtrack is as effective as it was in Bashir, a rippling undercurrent that whispers of sadness, and loss. The movie’s strongest moments are where the animation stops moving so quickly and the script lets up on the heavy-handed messaging, and the viewer simply drifts through a series of images, impressions, and ideas, moments reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s quasi-spiritual cinematography in Tree of Life, New World, and To The Wonder. I don’t know if the movie will stick with me the way Bashir does. I doubt it. There are so many threads flying around that a great many of them are simply forgotten. But I do appreciate The Congress, as I must appreciate anything that causes me to pause, and reflect.