The Congress review (London Film Festival)

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The Congress green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A hugely ambitious film reminiscent of The Matrix and the works of Terry Gilliam while also carving out its own apocalyptic sci-fi space.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’ve always believed — and this has always informed my film criticism — that telling stories is one of the very few things that distinguishes us from other animals (and I think it’s possible that some animals, such as whales, are storytellers, too, in which case we’d just have to expand the definition of “people” to include them). Telling stories makes us human, and the stories we tell reveal much about us individually and as a culture. But storytelling can be perverted, too, as with propaganda or religion, to dangerous uses… and in this remarkable film, writer-director Ari Folman — who made the astonishing animated documentary Waltz with Bashir — extrapolates an all-too-plausible and very horrifying way in which our desire for and love of stories could be twisted into something that is the ruin of humanity.

Robin Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays a version of herself here, an actress past what Hollywood considers her prime who is convinced by the head (Danny Huston: Stolen) of studio Miramount — heh — to agree to allow herself to be digitally scanned, in order that a forever-young electronic puppet “Robin Wright” can appear in movies forever… or at least for the next 20 years, the projected lifespan of the technology. Twenty years later, we jump ahead with the “real” Robin to experience the next step in entertainment, as she attends the Future Congress, a sort of trade show on the future of entertainment, to renegotiate her contract. The Congress takes place within a “restricted animation zone,” wherein mandatory hallucinogenic drugs compel Robin — and everyone else in the zone — to experience the real world as if it’s animated, with one’s own mind supplying the cartoony details and style. It’s a trippy experience even with our remove, one that challenges us to re-examine our understanding of the subjectivity of the presentation of a moving image on a screen… and The Congress still has far to go beyond this.

Very loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress, this is a hugely ambitious film that grapples with big ideas about the power of fantasy and the paradoxical powerlessness of celebrity, in ways that are reminiscent of The Matrix (although it’s far more pessimistic) and the works of Terry Gilliam (particularly in his explorations of mental illness) while also carving out its own apocalyptic sci-fi space. The phrase “the power of imagination” has never seemed so chilling.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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Tue, Oct 22, 2013 8:11pm

So who decided it was going to be thinky sci-fi season all of a sudden, after such a long gap? Another one to look forward to.

Tue, Oct 22, 2013 8:47pm

Wow. This sounds fascinating.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
Thu, Oct 24, 2013 6:34pm

Crazy thinky sci-fi cartoons? How have I not heard of this before?!

Thu, Apr 02, 2015 2:37pm

Finally saw this. Beautiful animation. I really liked the story, until I was completely confused by the end. Watched that a couple more times, now I think I’m not totally confused by that bit, but, still, yes, what the hell was happening at the end?


Did she find him by becoming him? And how does everyone function in the “real” world? I mean, they have to pee, right? And eat? Shower?!??! How did she drive the car while hallucinating? Gah!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Fri, Apr 03, 2015 11:00am

The pee in the hallucination. Their bodies still exist in the real world and do real-world things, like pee and eat and breathe and move. It’s just that as they do these things, they are seeing an imaginary layer of awesome over the real world. So instead of seeing the corner of the alley they are actually peeing in, they see a gold-plated spa, or whatever.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Apr 03, 2015 1:15pm

So, she “believed” she found him? Or did she really find him?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Sat, Apr 04, 2015 10:22am

I suppose that’s up for debate, but I think she really did find him.