The Congress (London Film Festival 2013) Review
The early, self-referential weirdness of The Congress, at first reminded me of Charlie Kauffman in terms of ambition, rather than the execution. The film, a distorted mixture of live-action and trippy animation, is actually the work of director Ari Folman, adapting Stanslaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress. I’m not familiar with the source text, but it’s safe to assume much of the Hollywood satire is from Folman’s input. The protagonist is Robin Wright, playing herself as she is today, a semi-famous actress in her mid-40s. She is led by her gruff agent (Harvey Keitel) to a board meeting where she’s offered a once-in-a-lifetime deal: sell her body in digital form to a studio, in return for money and an agreement to never perform again. (That last part is what makes it a once-in-a-lifetime deal.) The studio in question is called Miramount, which is surprisingly the satire’s most biting line. Otherwise, the script throws in light humour about Hollywood’s prevalence for younger actresses and dumbed-down sci-fis. Really, these points would seem tame if blurted at an Oscars ceremony. Folman’s attention is more spun towards the animated sequences, which take up the majority of The Congress. Without much explanation, Wright enters a cartoon world 20 years later – the loopy visuals suggest a cocktail of LSD and old TV cartoons, oscillating across the screen like a convention of hand-drawn characters: like when The Flintstones met The Jetsons multiplied by a satellite TV subscription. Wright, herself animated, finds society papers over its poverty in denial in a post-cinema world. At lurid parties, hallucinogenic drinks transform any recipients into a celebrity – they range from Michael Jackson, Jesus Christ, several people who accidentally look like Louis CK, and Robin Wright herself. The following hour is a vividly impressive thrill, if examining purely on looks. The artists push the medium with wavy lines and rapid transformations. However, The Congress frustratingly gets stuck inside its own smug maze of self-satisfied, unformulated ideas. Sadly, it shares both the visual flair and incoherence of an acid trip. The first act becomes forgotten amidst the surreal mess; when Wright speaks of missing her son, the emotions unintentionally sound fake – further compounded by digital choreography designed to trick the viewer’s first impression of each frame. The chopped up structure is likely to annoy audiences, rather than apply dramatic juxtaposition or express more ideas. I personally found the transformation liberating, given the opening act’s overlong set-up, and then exhausting by the lack of heart or focus. Folman aims for a send-up of Hollywood’s riches and vanity, while attempting to conjure up animation with an underground aesthetic; he’s unable to do both. Subsequently, there’s little depth, a fact even acknowledged when a producer calls sci-fi worthless – although an ironic joke, it’s an accurate self-description. The Congress is part of the London Film Festival’s “Cult” strand. Screening information can be found here.