Waltz with Bewilderment
Ari Folman’s The Congress, based on Stanisław Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, loses us at precisely the point where it should have been the most riveting. About halfway through its runtime, the movie makes a sudden leap from live action to animation, segueing into a vibrant cartoon world that feels like a cross between Dr. Seuss, Looney Tunes, and Folman’s own Waltz with Bashir. Cars drive down highways paved with rainbows, airplanes flap their wings like birds, and skyscrapers share the scenery with giant exotic plants. The stylistic twist is fabulously imaginative. Too bad it prefaces the part of the movie that makes no sense. Some films earn the right to be elliptical by proposing a cinematic vision that benefits from narrative confusion. David Lynch’s nightmarish Eraserhead comes to mind, as do impressionistic works like The Tree of Life and Upstream Color. The Congress, on the other hand, lays out too specific a thesis in its opening act for the movie to unravel irresponsibly into flights of whimsy and self-indulgent world building. Ultimately, the maddening opaqueness of the movie’s latter half substantially weakens the film’s message, resulting in an experience that promises gold but produces air.
It’s a shame, because the movie’s premise is ingenious as metaphor. What if an actress could be scanned so that her public self – her body, her mannerisms, her expressions of emotion – is stored in the form of computer code? What if this code could then supplant this actress in her future movies so that she can “appear” in those films without having to act for them? All it’d take is a little programming and – voila! – the digital likeness of the actress, which will never age even as the real actress does, could be pasted and re-pasted into various roles at the studio’s discretion. Packed into this scenario is decades’ worth of criticism against both the Hollywood studio system and the transition from analog to digital cinema – Hollywood for the way it commodifies its actors by pressuring them into one moneymaking picture after another, digital cinema for the way it violates the medium’s ontology in photographic film by creating manipulable images from ones and zeroes. In both cases, the alleged crime is the placing of image over reality for commercial gain. To fulfill the thorny contracts laid out by studio executives – here caricaturized by a ruthless Danny Huston – actors are circulated through films so rapidly that their various screen personas all but replace their true selves in the public eye. Digital cinema, by nature of being alterable, sacrifices the medium’s causal relationship with the physical world in favor of concocting the perfect product, one where all blemishes have been smoothed over and special effects added post-production.
With all this in mind, there is perhaps one argument that could be made regarding the movie’s abrupt shift to animation, and it’s that this transition is an act of artistic rebellion. By telling its story in such an aggressively unorthodox fashion, the film violates the aesthetic conventions that characterize popular cinema. By using animation specifically, the movie shoves past questions of digital cinema’s “realness” by adopting a cinematic mode that is and has always been blatantly artificial. The Congress certainly invites this kind of self-reflexive analysis – its heroine is Robin Wright playing herself, and the movie studio featured in the film is Miramount, an obvious nod to a real-world counterpart. As a formal experiment, the movie works wonders. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film’s ideological heft lies in the plot, which begins falling apart the moment the animation sets in. Prior to this point, the story had been straightforward enough. After over a decade of acting in financially and critically unsuccessful films, the character Robin Wright is offered one last contract that could redeem her career. This contract involves being scanned into Miramount’s computers and retiring from physical acting – for twenty years anyway – even as “Robin Wright” the digital actress continues appearing in movies. Robin is against the idea at first, but she ultimately gives in because she needs the money to treat her ailing son, who is steadily growing blind and deaf, and because a part of her is still enticed by the prospect of fame.
The movie then proceeds to jump forward twenty years, arriving at the end date of Robin’s contract. When we first see her, she is on her way to the Futurist Congress, a Miramount-hosted conference that celebrates the next stage in filmmaking technology: the ability to ingest the properties of an actor as a food-like substance, with one’s desires and subconscious urges supplying the narrative (actors have literally become consumer products). As the concept goes, films would no longer be seen with the eyes but experienced subjectively through the mind. Animation enters the picture when the conference attendees are required to take a hallucinogenic drug that renders their world a cartoon. What is the purpose of this drug? Does Miramount want its guests to test out its new technology? The film never explains, and from here The Congress becomes terribly convoluted. We assume the film’s animation depicts Robin’s hallucination, except the movie treats its animated characters as credible entities that help develop the plot, thus raising the question of how a hallucination can possibly be shared. After an (imagined?) uprising by anti-Miramount insurgents brings the Congress to a halt, Robin runs off with a dashing FX artist (Jon Hamm) and “discovers” things about Miramount even as we the viewers are left in the dark. Is any of this real? Are these discoveries actual discoveries or merely subconscious anxieties surfacing by way of the drug? The questions accumulate alarmingly, distracting us from the movie’s aesthetic pleasures and obliterating any previous connections we’d made with the story on either an intellectual or emotional level.
At one point in the film, Robin is drugged in her drug-induced state (or believes she has been, anyway), which leads to an Inception-style hallucination-within-a-hallucination. But whereas Christopher Nolan’s oneiric world had rules, the second act of The Congress is a free associative frenzy that, beyond presenting the actor-as-food metaphor, more or less abandons the ideas introduced in the first half of the movie. Sure the visuals are lovely to look at, but they are no substitute for the film’s original ambitions. What was Folman thinking? Did he intend for his movie to be so much a “formal experiment” that it ignored the convention of narrative altogether? Is he collapsing the film’s reality in order to illustrate the ways in which our culture’s carefully cultivated images obscure what is true and human in this world? This last possibility seems plausible, though one can’t do anything but speculate with a movie this muddled. Still, questions of intent are important, because even when The Congress is at its most nebulous, it never feels anything less than deliberate. From the fact that Robin’s son is losing his sight and hearing – the two senses typically used to experience movies – to the obviously intentional switch from live-action to animation, The Congress moves with purpose even if that purpose is never made clear. In the end, the film emerges with a vision that is vague to the point of disrespecting its audience, but it’s a vision nonetheless. And in an industry at least somewhat deserving of the criticisms the movie dishes out, that counts for something.
The Congress is now available on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It hits theaters on August 29.