The Congress is an ambitious dystopian film made by Israeli film-maker Ari Folman, best known for his 2008 masterpiece Waltz with Bashir. It is based on the sci-fi novel Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, who also wrote Solaris, a book that was later adapted for screen by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Robin Wright (played, naturally, by Robin Wright) is a 44-year old actress who’s career is about to end. She has a reputation of being hard to work with and making bad choices when it comes to her professional life, considering that most of the films she starred in turned out to be commercial failures. She’s also over 40 years old – and that’s the main reason the all-powerful “Miramount” studio (a made-up name that derives from “Miramax” and “Paramount”) doesn’t want to hire her anymore. But before letting her go, they decide to give her one last chance. They want to buy her looks and identity and create her digital image that would film movies in her place. After some serious doubts and consideration, she finally agrees to sell her persona in exchange for a nice payment and a promise to never act again.
The first half of the film is a very strightforward critique of how Hollywood (that glorifies the “young and beautiful”) treats actresses, especially those who reach a certain age. It critiques the pressures the film studios put on women; how they dictate them how to look and who to be. This is very clearly represented in a scene where Robin Wright and her agent (played by Harvey Keitel) argue about selling her identity to the studio:
Keitel: It’s not like anything has changed. You’ve always been their puppet. All of them – the producers, the directors, they told you what to do, they told you how to behave, how to act, how to smile, how to love. And when you hit 35 they told you how to look young. Because if you didn’t do what they wanted you to do, shave off a couple of years from that beautiful face of yours, you would cease to exist! So…what’s the difference?
Wright: It is the gift of choice that is being taken away! I don’t want somebody else deciding when I can be, what I want to be, I want to decide. That’s my choice.
Keitel: You’re dellusional. All the women who were face-lifted to death, they can’t smile or show pain or emotion, that’s a choice? That’s just staying on as their tools, don’t you get it?
Shortly after this scene the film jumps 20 years into the future. It continues with Wright coming back to Miramount for the Futurological Congress – and it’s at that point that a powerful dramatic live action suddenly turns into a bizarre animation. Miramount’s new technology allows people to transform themselves into animated avatars. It allows them to step into a hallucinogenic, illusory state (ironically called “Free Choice”) in which they can become anything they want to be. There’s Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Tom Cruise. There’s also Queen Elizabeth and Jesus. The choices are infinite, you can become whomever you want. Robin, too, becomes an animated version of herself, that (in her own words) looks like “a Cinderella on heroin”. (The hallucinogenic state in which they live after they consume Miramount’s drug reminds me of Huxley’s drug “soma” from Brave New World – of a drug that became a new religion in a world without religion and that had the ability to transcend time and space and made the whole population happy.)
At this point the film lost its initial edginess and became a bit confusing, since it wanted to include too many complex ideas into a film that is only 123 minutes long. Critique of the film industry alone is complex enough – when the film continues with even larger themes, such as a critique of technological and scientific advancements, it becomes hard to follow. But even though the film wanted to be too many things at once, it was still an interesting and engaging watch with one of the most bizarre animated LSD trips that you can imagine. I definitely recommend it, although it can’t really measure up to the greatness of Folman’s debut film and award winner, Waltz with Bashir.
Directed by: Ari Folman
Written by: Ari Folman
Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 122 minutes