Film Review: ‘The Congress’


In his short story The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster proclaimed that humanity, in its desire for comfort, had overreached itself and that ‘progress’ had come to mean the progress of the machine. With his broad adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, Israeli director Ari Folman seeks to add weight to the numerous dystopian imagined futures that have flooded late-20th century art. Following animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), Folman returns with live-action, animation hybrid The Congress (2013), which seeks to address the fears touched upon in western thought, whether they be the deconstructions of Jean Baudrillard or the rancid paranoias of Philip K. Dick.

Robin Wright plays ‘Robin Wright’, an actress approaching the end of the line as far as her career is concerned. After decades of bad decisions, her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) convinces Wright to take the only offer on the table – selling the digital representation of herself to the head of Miramount Studios (Danny Huston) for two decades. The elements of the film glide and fit smoothly from the opening, with its satire on Hollywood studio filmmaking to its effect decades down the line when Wright must approach the Congress of the title to renegotiate her contract. From here we gently slip into an animated world brought on by drugs freely given to a simulated hell; one which Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation predicated would “no longer be one of torture, but of subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of meaning.”

Of course, the very idea of shutting out a reality which we don’t want is a persuasive but ultimately divisive one. As Wright wanders around the hotel complex where the Congress is held, she falls into a dream within dream before snapping back to reality. Her guide throughout this odyssey is the technician that has worked on her films for the last twenty years, Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm). Virgil to her Dante, he attempts to explain the unexplainable; the world she surrounds herself with thanks to doses of narcotic enhancement is a replacement of the outside world and its current collapse. Gilles Deleuze claimed that we are no longer able to know how to react to spaces we are unable to describe, and that the modern world now operates in a realm of incommensurability. This is one way of attempting a futile explanation of Folmans’ latest. When we no longer believe in the events that are happening to or around us, the only thing left is an attempted discourse with the body. This ‘mind of winter’ is the attempt to grasp the nothing that is.

For a film that looks at a believably nightmarish future, The Congress sits out of its time; a feverish relic of a post-revolutionary cinema of the mind that attempts to transcend the confines of a bloated filmic space that appears no longer interested in discourse, and would rather parley its audience into a stupefied boredom. Fluidity remains the sense of kinesis that unfolds before our eyes throughout Folman’s film; it soars away from us at the moment when we feel we can grasp it. The offer is a disengagement as insight, an escape down the rabbit hole that gives a realisation that what could be a dream is in fact our constructed reality as a defence mechanism against reality. Cinema is supposed to be the art of the possible, which is all well and good, but what about the impossible? The harbinger of new worlds, the construction of cathedrals of the mind are what amaze and dazzle; this is The Congress.

D.W. Mault