The Congress is an undeveloped, contradictory, near-incomprehensible mess that is worth watching for just how utterly bizarre it is.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
If absolutely nothing else, The Congress – the newest feature from Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman – tries. It tries. It’s clearly got imagination and a desire to take the viewer to strange fanciful places and to angrily shout and rail against something. Trouble is, I really don’t know what it’s supposed to be railing about. I don’t even know what the overall point of the film is supposed to be. I am about 48 hours removed from The Congress and I still struggle to tell you what in the blue hell actually happened in this thing. Normally waiting to talk about a film allows it the opportunity to fully sink in. To allow oneself the chance to wrap their head around the deeper parts of a film and make sense of that which can seem obtuse. But it has been 48 hours and I still have no f*cking clue what The Congress was trying to do.
Word of advance notice, folks: a good majority of this review is going to consist of me recapping or relating the plot to you with bits of commentary in-between. This is a film that is very much of distinct stages – each bit trying to do something different, each bit with its own problems – and trying to evaluate the film as a whole would simply devolve into me shouting “it’s a mess” over and over again like a housekeeper that’s been driven insane. I am determined to try and approach this total mess with criticism that can explain why it fails, and this is the best way I can think of doing so.
So, with that in mind, The Congress follows Robin Wright playing a version of herself. In this reality, she’s the actress who never made good on her initial promises. After The Princess Bride and Forest Gump, she kept picking bad role after bad role, and developed a reputation for flaking on gigs minutes before shooting and being incredibly hard to work with on the roles she sticks with. Her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), comes to her with one last offer from film studio Miramount Pictures: they want to digitise her and own the likeness, personality and identity of Robin Wright to use in whatever pictures they fancy – the caveat being that she must retire from acting.
So, for a good 40 or so minutes, Robin Wright agonises over this decision, the implications and darker side of the concept in theory are addressed and debated, and The Congress seems to be setting up to be an angry screed against the movie industry and the way it views and treats actresses. Robin here is 42 which, in Hollywood terms, is effectively a one-way trip to the retirement home for actresses, and Al and the head of Miramount (played by Danny Huston) lecture her and frequently put her down for a career misspent in wrong roles and having the gall, the gall, to want to prioritise taking care of her two kids – her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is suffering from a disease that is robbing him of his sight and hearing and has an obsession with box kites and planes, and her daughter (Sami Gayle) whose presence in the film is completely inconsequential.
As you may have gathered, subtlety is really not The Congress’ forte and its writing is the definition of loud and clunky. Much, and I do mean much, of those opening 45 minutes involve characters outright saying or shouting sound bites or exposition at one another – the film’s method of addressing the parallels between the owning of an actor’s identity and the current way the film industry works is to have Harvey Keitel shout about how not-different the two things are for a good minute. Pacing is also incredibly slow, one could cut this section down by at least half without losing anything except an interminably long period of having everybody stuck in this purgatorial loop of doing the same scenes over and over again but in a different location.
This segment of the film is shot in live-action and Folman’s direction of these segments is competent if uninspired. The film gets a couple of decent shots in there – coming primarily from scenes where Robin visits a doctor (Paul Giamatti) with her son for an update on his condition, where the shots are staged in this flat direct way that alternates between making the son and Robin the POV of the scene, and the sequence where Robin finally gets digitised – but staging is mostly very flat and dreary, and, as previously mentioned, pacing is languid. Both of those scenes I just mentioned are the highlights of the film – the digitisation scene, in particular, gets some of the best work I’ve seen out of Harvey Keitel in years – but both go on for what feels like an eternity, long after their points have been made.
Flaws aside, though, this part of the film is alright and is clearly building towards something. At about the 45 minute mark of this near-2 hour movie, Robin finally gets digitised and the film seems like we’re getting ready to follow what happens when movie studios abuse a star’s image and how an actor goes about life when they are supposed to stop doing the thing they’ve made a living out of. Except that, at this point, the film immediately jumps ahead 20 years to the end of Robin’s contract with Miramount. She is off to speak at The Futurist Congress, where she will renegotiate her contract with the studio and help promote a drug that they’ve created that enables, as the film keeps stating without ever really explaining, “free choice” – the ability to perceive and project oneself as whatever they want to be seen as.
Oh, and The Futurist Congress takes place in a “Restricted Animated Zone” where its inhabitants are legally required to take said drug that has them exclusively perceive the world in animation. Yeah. This, unsurprisingly, is where things go off the rails. Question: how much of what I just typed in this and the last paragraph seems related to what the film was about for 45 minutes beforehand? That’s my point. The first third of this film sets up and foreshadows a tonne of stuff, ideas, scenarios and themes but then never actually does anything with them. Robin’s career as a virtual movie star comes up very, very rarely – the studio has reinvented her as a sci-fi (the one genre she wouldn’t touch, fnar fnar) action heroine in the one film clip we actually get to see – with The Congress content to instead start over and try something completely different.
It probably doesn’t surprise you, therefore, to learn that this film is based off of a book – The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem – a book which, I have been reliably informed, contains absolutely no references to anything that happens in the first 45 minutes. Hence why it feels like a short film has been awkwardly stitched onto the main feature, or a film that shot its first third before Folman instead decided he wanted to make a completely different film but had spent too much money to just throw away his prior hard work.
In any case, there’s still some semblance of worth and promise in The Congress at this point. The animation is very striking, consciously evoking Max Fleischer, Disney and psychedelic animation like Yellow Submarine. There’s a lot going on in every frame and the constant barrage of colours and shapes and images did hold my attention long after the film’s flighty plotting lost it. Plus, everything is always off in this rather clever way. Animation fluctuates in fluidity, dimensions shift in this unnatural manner, and characters seem uncanny in many hard-to-describe points – it works to create this slightly nightmarish dream feel that works for about 45 minutes. After that, though, the constant barrage that had made the film interesting to look at lost my interest – there is, after all, only so long you can go full-tilt before it all becomes dull and one-note.
Narratively and thematically, the film shifts its focus but at least remains clear in some respects. Robin is understandably freaked out and apprehensive about being used to help market drugs and is clearly being haunted by the career that she technically never had, so the film still has an eye set on its original righteous fury against celebrity and the film industry. It just now also seems prepared to tackle decadence and privilege – the congress itself is visualised like an upper-class version of Zion from The Matrix Reloaded – too.
Then terrorists attack The Futurist Congress and The Congress proceeds to collapse spectacularly. Robin runs into a man who has spent the last 20 years helping animate her digital self (voiced by Jon Hamm), gets trapped in the hotel basement with him and then… I, I honestly could not tell you. It is at this point that the film becomes an absolute mindf*ck as Robin somehow ends up trapped seeing the world in the fake animation zone and being driven mad as a result. She is placed into a coma for 20 years in the hopes that a cure will be found and then… stuff happens.
Put simply, the second hour of The Congress is a complete and total mess. It blunders about from one scene to another with no rhyme or reason, its thematic through line becomes hopelessly muddled, its characters become inconsistent, and its lack of an emotional centre to guide one through the mess becomes abundantly clear. As previously mentioned, the animation, which was a welcome breath of fresh air from the dreary and lifeless live-action segment, loses its charm and the film just becomes a procession of images with nothing guiding it through besides Robin Wright’s desire to see her son again.
Except that, despite that lengthy opening segment, there really is no actual emotion in her desire to get back to her son. The bond doesn’t feel quite real, the film’s first 45 minutes don’t pay anywhere near enough attention to it, and the son’s disappearance from the film for a good long stretch afterwards leads to the relationship feeling hollow. Ditto Jon Hamm’s animator who, surprise surprise, is in love with Robin Wright. So there’s no emotional centre, its narrative is a mess, and its thematic backbone ends up so convoluted and contradictory that the film ends up finishing with a sequence where Paul Giamatti all but stares directly at the camera saying “drugs are bad and you shouldn’t take them to make yourself feel better about this sh*tty world” before the film ends up undermining that message too!
I will tell you the point where I just gave up trying to follow The Congress, the specific point. The specific point came during a scene in which Robin Wright flies a box kite – which resembles one her son would fly cos, y’know, symbolism – into a commercial airliner. That airliner crash lands and explodes in an airport, which causes all of the other airliners to explode as well. And then, in front of the giant flames of the airport, animated Jon Hamm has sex with animated Robin Wright whilst the score plays some Dream Pop song that she’s singing.
I just don’t know what this film was trying to do, folks. If it wanted to be a pointed angry satire of Hollywood, then why the sudden yet half-assed switch to existentialism in the second hour? If it wanted to be a trippy, psychedelic mind-screw about the nature of reality, then what is with the non-animated segments? If it wants to be an emotional tale about a mother battling to reunite with her son, then what’s with all of this unrelated bullsh*t and why doesn’t that core feel genuine? If it wants to be a satire, then why is it so humourless? If it wants to be psychedelic, then why are proceedings so utterly joyless?
The Congress is a near-total failure on every single level. That being said, I don’t hate it. I just don’t know what it was trying to be. I’d recommend it for the animation segments, assuming you watch them in two 30 minute chunks so that the truly bizarre imagery of the last 30 minutes is able to actually provoke a full-on reaction, and for just how committed to its total nonsensical near-incomprehensibility it is, but that’s about it. The Congress is clearly trying – and I applaud it for that – but I just don’t know what it was trying to do.
The Congress is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday.
Callum Petch told you we’d make it on for another. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!
Disclosure: The reviewer received a screener copy from Emfoundation for review.