The Congress (2013)

The Congress first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“People call RRR science fiction, but I just say it’s not, it’s documentary.”

So says actress Robin Wright in a televised promotional interview about Rebel Robot Robin, the kickass, whip-wielding heroine whom she plays in an action franchise. Though live-action (in an otherwise animated world) and played by the real Wright, both the actress and the character Robin are computer-generated constructs within the layered fictions and realities of Ari Folman’s The Congress, after the real Wright had, 20 years earlier, let her studio Miramount (heh!) fully digitise her image, as it did with all actors.

Now the real Wright – sixtysomething and shown in cartoon form – looks on in bemusement at this fabricated likeness of her younger self, while attending the Futurological Congress (also the name of the 1971 Stanislaw Lem novel from which Folman has loosely adapted his story) in a chemically controlled, funpark-like ‘animation zone’ where identity is fluid, desire is instantly gratified, and the next level in entertainment is about to be announced – a revolution that will leave the world’s population permanently living their dreams.

The Congress certainly is science fiction, presenting its utopian future as a lysergic fantasia of consumable celebrities and wish-fulfilment chaos – but, expanding an idea that he had already brought into play in his devastating documentary Waltz With Bashir (2008), Folman uses animation, cinema’s most plastic form, as much to reveal as to conceal realities. For the film starts by satirising the way that Hollywood’s dream machine chews up and spits out its commodifiable stars, with Wright gamely playing herself as a once promising actress whose bad choices and family attachments have brought her past her use-by date. Once the sexagenarian Wright has agreed to enter the Zone, she finds herself stuck there, struggling to retain her sense of self, yet determined to trace a path to the beloved son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whom she has left behind.

An ailing, obsessive flyer of kites who, like the pioneering early twentieth-century aviators whose surname he shares, dreams of soaring beyond his own biological limits, Aaron remains the one anchor for Robin’s own flights of fancy, her longings and regrets – although whether in the end she actually finds her way to him, or merely conjures a reimagined version of him in a terminally solipsistic neural network, remains poignantly open. Either way, though, her illusory odyssey of twenty-years (the same number Ulysses spent away from his son) offers a philosophical and spiritual exploration of the pressures placed upon individual identity by a fantasy system of rôle-play, projection and alterity.

So while The Congress might seem a hallucinatory trip through a cityscape of the imagination, it also allegorises our own very real relationship with the mythopoeic worlds of cinema (from which this film quotes with relentless, voracious postmodernism) or of the internet. Here the future, for all its free-associative leaps and eye-catching imagery, is a recognisable potpourri of the past and present – and Folman makes it clear that the rich soup of feelings that his film stirs in us is rooted in little more than a manipulative artifice that exploits our own hopes and fears. In the end, this film of awe and ideas is both scifi and metacinematic documentary, reminiscent of The Matrix (1999), eXistenZ (1999), Avalon (2001), Inception (2010), Antiviral (2012), and especially Paprika (2006) – but it is also very much its own thing, with Folman’s congress somehow bringing us closer together while isolating and alienating us all the more. Unmissable.

© Anton Bitel