The Congress (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Congress (2014)

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Robin is unable to get the work she used to and is thinking of selling her image and acting abilities to a growing field of digital performance reproduction.  The Congress, Ari Folman's follow-up to Waltz with Bashir, is about what happens when digital isn't enough and consumers no longer want to be voyeurs, but participants.

Stroke robotsWhen I was watching The Congress, I realized how many times I am looking for the bits of wonder in films assembled in a workmanlike fashion.  Directors have to make sure the image gets across as well as the narrative, and that results in more pictures that are pleasing, but not challenging, to watch.  One of the things that made X-Men: Days of Future Past such a studio anomaly was that it was willing to play with conventions of space, logic, time, and color in ways that make it dance off the screen.  Even with those creative leaps it was still constrained to the form of a super hero film, and delivered its action and emotional beats accordingly.

After The Congress and 2008's Waltz with Bashir, it's safe to say that director Ari Folman has an innate sense of visual construction unencumbered by rules.  Waltz was a test run for what he is able to carry out in The Congress.  It's a mind-bending collage of surrealistic art, broad caricature, dreamy live-action visuals, hard science-fiction, and social commentary that opens with his imagination on overload and does not stop to revisit a single one of its sequences.

I try to avoid other reviews before watching a film I plan on writing about,  but it was difficult to avoid some of the buzz floating around the internet.  A common complaint is that the story involves too many twists and confusing paths with the visuals serving as a mere backdrop to the bonkers scenario taking place.  I'm split on this, because I wholly disagree with the reasoning behind the criticism, but agree with the criticism itself.  The only way that The Congress could have been improved is if Folman decided to make it film without dialogue and just let his images and music guide the narrative.  The narrative isn't the problem, it's the audience trying to make sense out of the beauty of Folman's acidic monster of a film when the idea is to drift in with Robin's altered chemical state.

Robin Wright's mannered performance in the real world reflects the illusion she has to give people to continue to work.

Robin Wright's mannered performance in the real world reflects the illusion she has to give people to continue to work.

That said, we are so starved for films that push visual boundaries that anyone complaining about the dialogue in a visual medium with images this potent should reconsider their stance on cinema.  No matter the setting, be it the physical world or the blended organic and electronic state of being in the animated world, plays with a variety visual tricks.  The organic world is sense-based, with the camera lingering on Robin's skin as it is lit up by hundreds of tiny lights, or a close-up of mouths giving solemn medical advice through thick glass.  It emphasizes both the transitory nature of these states from something we've always perceived as "real" versus the artificial reality we have been perfecting with each advance in technology.

The Congress transitions between the "real" world and the animated world by changing a few key ideas in Einstein's old quote, "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."  Instead of the idea being appalling, what if it's just different?  When we get a glimpse into the animated world brought about by refined chemical transformations there are moments where it looks like paradise.  New York transforms into a multicultural landscape where visions of Ganesh dispense wisdom alongside floating paintings and buildings that drift away with the wind, dangling their roots behind.  This world is beautiful through its blend of the familiar and the impossible.

Traditional animation is the only medium that could have properly communicated this elevated level of existence.  Look closely in any frame of the animated world and you will see bizarre sights mixed with wonderful visual gags operating on multiple planes of action.  The computer-generated imagery we are used to seeing would have been too real for this existence.  Instead the familiar sights of celebrities old and new are created so lovingly that the visage of long-dead icons feels natural among the crazy machines.  Folman's animation team has a real talent for producing the essence of each borrowed persona from film history, and one of my unexpected laughs comes from how quickly i recognized their unique look doing mundane activities in this bizarre place.

The animated world blends the familiar and the fantastic so easily that nothing seems implausible.

The animated world blends the familiar and the fantastic so easily that nothing seems implausible.

Visually The Congress is the most stunning film of the year, and I mentioned earlier how it would benefit from being free of dialogue.  It's not because Folman's narrative is difficult to follow, but because he makes it too easy.  Every scene of the film is accompanied either by Robin explaining what she is feeling at this moment, or getting information about where she needs to go next to solve her emotional problems.  The most brilliant transition of the film is when the film transfers from live-action to animated because there is no accompanying dialogue to explain what happens.  Robin merely takes a drug, and rather than explain exactly what that drug will do, we're thrust into the animated perception along with her.

The journey has a social point that has become more relevant in light the recent hacking that resulted in a number of female movie stars having nude pictures of themselves plastered over the internet.  Robin Wright plays herself both as an extension of her acting persona and as a commodity to be traded and bid on in the real and animated worlds.  The Congress asks what advancing technology means for women who already have their bodies commoditized and scrutinized as Robin is placed in many situations where her male peers belittle her.  I admire one of the many conclusions it comes to in that even if we are able to attain digital equality it is not worth transitioning to or preserving that world if it comes with our old prejudices intact.

It's because of this ambition that The Congress is elevated from the level of an abstract screen-saver into serious, and staggering, art.  Cinema needs more ambitious and thought-provoking pieces of work that blend so many styles of film-making into a cohesive statement on our part in existence.  Even if other films can't go that far, taking a few lessons from Folman on how to pretty up your picture won't hurt either.

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Tail - The CongressThe Congress (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Ari Folman.
Starring Robin Wright.

Posted by Andrew

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