Here is one of the most recent films to feature in my ‘Hidden Treasures’ selections. Ari Folman’s The Congress was actually only released in the UK in 2014 and is fresh to DVD and Blu Ray here. It is the sort of film that seems tailor made to become a cult movie, but in the current climate many films are being lost in the sheer volume of material available to view (legitimately) online. I saw The Congress at the London Film Festival in 2013 and it is fair to say it blew me away, especially on a big screen with a thunderous sound system.
Sometime in the very near future an actress named Robin Wright (Robin Wright) is approached by her agent Al (Keitel) with a deal. Wright is not in a great place career-wise, she turned down too many parts, appeared in a too many flops, refused to oil the studio machinery, chose children over career. So at 43 the offers have dried up. Al is frank with her, she cannot afford not to consider the offer from Miramount Studios.
As it turns out, the offer is a one time deal which could set Wright up comfortably and also pay for medical treatment for her son’s (Smit-McPhee) deteriorating hearing. Alas like any Mephistophelian pact it comes with strings attached. Slimy suit Jeff (Houston) explains she must consent to a full body scanning process and agree never to act again, no independent films, no summer seasons off off Broadway, no pantos in Bournemouth (Jeff doesn’t actually say that last one, but it is in the small print). Wright will grant the studio exclusive rights to use her as a digi-thespian. With new SFX technology they can add a ‘virtual’ her to any film and use her in any way they deem fit (subject to contractual agreements).
This is a chilling idea for any middle aged cineaste (and most young film fans to I would guess) but it is also something on the cusp of becoming reality (a slow hand clap for George Lucas) so Folman’s film is extremely prescient. It is also merely the beginning of the director’s exploration of notions of identity, image, and intellectual property rights in the 21st Century and beyond.
If this sounds potentially dry, it is anything but. Based on a novel by Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem (author of Solaris), The Congress is nothing like a blend of Videodrome, Being John Malkovich and Fantasia but that’s the best I can come up. The film’s technical mastery – mixing live action and animation – is matched by thematic complexity. At its heart is a brilliant performance by Wright complimented by a beautiful Max Richter score. The (live action) sequence in which Wright undergoes the scanning process leads to a scene between her and Keitel that is heartbreaking. The aging agent ‘directs’ the actress through a subtle series of emotions leading to sadness and regret at the passing of an art form into a post-human future.
Like Waltz With Bashhir, The Congress shows the rich potential of animation to tell adult stories. Western animation is not short of ambition, but in style Folman looks back to the counter culture derived animation of Ralph Bakshi even as his story looks forward. It is an interesting artistic decision to show a virtual world using animation styles and techniques of yesteryear, but it is also canny as The Congress is likely to be fresh and strange in twenty years time in a way that, say, The Lawnmower Man is not today.
Genuinely unique among 2013’s crop of movies, The Congress is as thrilling intellectually as it is visually. An important work of speculative satire utterly engaged with contemporary society and technology and its implications for our ideas of self. The experience of watching it is of a sugar rush thrill (it is also often very funny), but with a bitter aftertaste that lingers for days.