Yes, the record-setting pace of 2014 continues, though The Congress is actually a 2013 film (Janelle and Laurens watched it in Germany at least fourteen months ago), as are a number of my four-star films for 2014. The Congress has still not appeared in Winnipeg and is not available here in any form, but I imported a copy from the U.S., where it was released on DVD a couple of weeks ago.
The Congress is the work of Ari Folman, whose only previous feature film was Waltz With Bashir, one of my favourite films of 2008. This time, only half of his film is animated. And this time it’s a science fiction film, based on a 1971 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem called The Futurological Congress. Lem’s writing has been most closely compared to Philip K. Dick and The Congress certainly reminded me of Dick’s works.
It’s the very near future (though possibly could be happening today) and Robin Wright, who plays herself in the film, is offered the opportunity (by a major fictional Hollywood studio called Miramount) to have her image downloaded so that she will never have to work again. Instead, computer technicians will use her image to make her a star (and perpetually 34 years old). Given her real age (44) and that her career has been on a slide since the days of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, Wright’s agent (played wonderfully by Harvey Keitel) advises her to accept the offer.
Meanwhile, back at home, Wright is working with Dr. Barker (Paul Giamatti) on her teenage son’s gradual loss of hearing. Barker notes that Aaron (the son) has the unique gift of creating scenes as he wants to see/hear them. This ability to live in a virtual world created out of our dreams and desires is the focus of the second half of The Congress, which is represented as an animated world. With the use of drugs, people in this world can become the actors they have always wanted to be while the ‘real’ world deteriorates. When Wright visits this world twenty years after her fateful decision, she realizes just how horrible ‘the future’ has become.
I won’t say anymore about the plot (supposing I even had the ability to figure it all out). The Congress is a work of profound cinematic art that brilliantly, and very sharply, satirizes the Hollywood film industry, ‘celebrity’, the pharmaceutical industry and individuality/identity. The ability to use CGI to create films without live actors is already with us, as is a world in which people can live their dream identity through sophisticated video games or even Facebook. The Congress is partly a warning that we need to take very seriously.
The animation is superb, the score is perfect, and the acting by all concerned is excellent. Wright, whose career is actually on a major upswing (e.g. House of Cards), does a great job playing herself (or a form of herself). The screenplay by Folman is intelligent and provides much food for thoughtful discussion. But I will need to watch The Congress again to put all the pieces together. The animated half of the film was a little overwhelming for me, with all kinds of ideas and plot directions that didn’t seem to hang together. The ending was also like this and was not altogether satisfying.
Nevertheless, like Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, perfection is not required for a brilliant sci-fi film to rate ****. That’s what I’m giving The Congress. My mug is up.