The Congress (Ari Folman – Israel/Germany/Poland/Luxembourg/France/Belgium) 122 minutes
Ari Folman’s first English-language film (his fourth in all) follows on from the huge international success of Waltz with Bashir but is a severely underwhelming experience in comparison. Freely adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futorological Congress, the film stars Robin Wright as a washed-up middle-aged actress named… Robin Wright, who has put her family first to the detriment of her career. She is a single mother of two teenage children, one of whom is autistic, and the only offer her agent (Harvey Keitel) can muster for her is the opportunity to be scanned for Hollywood to use her likeness ad infinitum in computer-generated films. The pay is pitiful and she must promise to never act again.
The first part of The Congress shows her weighing up – and ultimately accepting – this offer; it is the film’s main departure from Lem’s novel and it is a rather toothless addition. The satirical jabs aimed at Hollywood are so lame they could be from a Paulie Shore film and the self-reflexivity falls flat on its face. Wright is neither lost cause nor superstar and the ontological weight of the character’s predicament is wasted. It would make far more sense to cast either Wynona Ryder, Sharon Stone or even Angelina Jolie as themselves to give the scenario the appropriate frisson of teetering failure. (Who knows? Folman may have tried to get someone like them, but you can imagine many Hollywood stars would have found the film’s intimation too close to the bone.) As it stands, Wright is an odd fit and doesn’t work in the role; it’s as if you cast Bette Davis or Greta Garbo as Norma Desmond.
The second part is mostly animated, as was Waltz with Bashir. It is set twenty years in the future; Wright has been invited by Miramount, the studio she has indentured herself to, to visit the Futorological Congress, which is ‘a strictly animated environment’. This environment is peopled exclusively by the well-off, who have been able to afford the recreational medicine that allows them to live beyond ‘the truth’. (When we discover ‘the truth’ later in the film, as it turns back to live action, it is not a shock to discover that it is a very bleak world indeed). The animated paradise allows its inhabitants to create their own reality (at one point a robot bellhop tells Wright that the lights in her hotel room have gone off ‘because you chose darkness’). It is a similar diegetic determinism to Lem’s more famous Solaris, though The Congress doesn’t even come near to touching the cloak of Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of that book, never mind Tarkovsky’s.
Wright, when called upon to give a speech, upbraids those gathered at the Congress in exactly the sort of outburst that you keep hoping will some day happen at a TED conference; she is then wooed by a fellow Congress attendee (voiced by Jon Hamm but, animated, he looks far more like Adrien Brody) but she is unmoved by the attractions of the medicated utopia and is searching for her son, who is getting progressively blind and deaf in her absence.
The Congress is the sort of film that probably sounded intriguing in abstract (maybe even in script form) but it is a long, long slog, right to the very end. Its various tropes fail to come to life, its ideas fail to materialise and its marathon maudlin tone seems forced. I have not really felt this punished by ponderous dreariness since Synecdoche, New York. The animation, which draws heavily on the Fleischer brothers, is also rendered pointless by Folman’s seeming lack of interest in its formal plasticity – there are few attempts made to genuinely take the film somewhere live action cannot reach. Folman might as well have just shot the second part in monochrome or gone with straight rotoscope rather than what he attempted here. What we are left it with is a film that misfires at practically every opportunity.