The Congress is a beguiling film, a Technicolor explosion of ideas and impassioned arguments about Hollywood double standards and an investigation into star personae and a dystopian freak-out that would appear to have torn itself right from Ralph Bakshi’s brain all at once. Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz with Bashir keeps the visionary multimedia approach, but transitions from one kind of politics to another. This time, Folman has quite a bit to say about the politics of the body and what it is that defines a human being in a time where the hyper-real has become part of everyday life.
Like a great many visionary films, The Congress is hardly perfect. And a lot of that imperfection rears its head at the very beginning and very end of the film. Centered around Robin Wright, playing herself in a fashion, the film starts off in the not-so-distant future as a satire about the shelf life of the average Hollywood actress. Jeff Green (Danny Huston), the head of Miramount Studios (the film isn’t particularly interested in subtlety at any level of production), offers the supposedly aging Wright a massive contract opportunity. The catch: she’ll be digitally absorbed, from smile to agony to every other point on the emotional spectrum, and will agree to never act again, forfeiting her body to be used as the studio pleases in the years to come.
Left with no choice in light of her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) being diagnosed with a disorder that will one day render him blind and deaf, even with considerable treatment, Wright agrees to surrender her likeness. After all, she’s a long way from Forrest Gump and has burned a bridge too many. Folman’s selection of Wright as the focus of his bleak vision is perfect — an actress completely recognizable and appropriately magnetic, who’s also faded from the spotlight over time in real life. Or, at least, some version of real life.
It’s in The Congress’s second hour that the film’s vision becomes clear. That’s after no shortage of long sequences concerning Wright’s arguments with her agent (Harvey Keitel, unusually stiff) about the merits of staying in the Hollywood game into one’s forties. As satire, The Congress is pointed but not particularly funny or even sharp; aside from a few clever notes about a celebrity’s lack of bodily autonomy in the digital age, the film beats you over the head rather frequently. In particular, one of the film’s centerpieces, Wright’s recording, involves Keitel delivering a flowing monologue designed to dredge up her most extreme emotions, delivered with roughly the same passion as a home shopping pitch.
At least, it does until the inside of Folman’s brain can no longer inhabit boardrooms and nicely appointed homes and enters the realm of the fantastic. Invited to The Congress, which if you stop to really consider the film’s explanation can perhaps best be summarized as a hallucinatory Burning Man of sorts, Wright ingests a futuristic drug that sends her to a realm where anybody can become anything they want, bodies and identities have become fluid, and the tawdry action franchise Wright’s avatar was put into is treated with borderline reverence. She’s a superstar anew, but what’s it matter if everybody is anybody?
Loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, The Congress tears its way into the heart of modern reality, in which a technological simulacra has become the chief mode of interaction. Alternately, to take off the grad school program analysis hat for a moment, it’s a film that explores, using the very language of cinema itself, exactly what a film is and can be when everybody’s a star and disappearing into a sedated void of bliss can cost the human condition. And at the center of it is Wright, giving a completely fearless, uninhibited performance as a woman who plays the last card she thinks she has left and ends up immersed in a world she can neither understand nor inhabit.
If Folman’s film eventually disappears so far down the rabbit hole Lem once dug that its final half hour feels nearly indiscernible, it’s because The Congress ultimately explores some of the same layered universes that Charlie Kaufman used to more resonant effect in Synecdoche, New York. The Congress, however, is ever bit as bleak, offering a vision of a world completely detached from the pain of reality, and indeed the art and soul of it as well. Folman’s future is one in which everybody is beautiful and nobody has to hurt, but if The Congress states its position a little too frankly at times, it still offers a powerfully weary vision of where our obsession with bodies might be taking us. And with the news right now, it’s prescient to an uncomfortable degree.