Ari Folman’s The Congress – A Thematic Jumble of Sights and Sounds

Ari Folman's The Congress - 2013 filmDirector Ari Folman is well known in Israel these days for his film Waltz with Bashir, which isn’t done by Rotoscope, in case you’re wondering. A couple of weeks ago I’ve watched his newest film, The Congress, at a local sci-fi and fnatasy convention, surrounded by other convention goers. The film was different, and interesting on many levels. One thing I didn’t feel it manage to do well is add up to a consistent creation, on an artistic level, or on any thematic level – discussing its theme, the main question it raises, or its messages. However, considering the film is split into two different moods as part of its concept, I guess it’s not all that surprising.
The Congress is very loosely based on Stanisław Lem‘s novel, Futurological Congress.

The first half of the film deals with actress Robin Wright, and is filmed “normally”, with her being faced with her fading career and being given an ultimatum – sell over her digitized avatar to the studios who will be able to make film without her involvement, with the catch of being unable to ever act again – the other side of the ultimatum is that she simply will get no more contracts – so either way, they’re shutting her away from movie-making, but the difference is whether she’ll get to choose which roles to play in, or won’t. In case you wonder, she sells her rights over.

The second half of the movie comes when Robin is invited to a convention, the “congress”, where they have to inhale a substance en route which has everyone appearing and perceiving reality as if it is a drawing. There are many vistas that the only way to describe them is weird, and it really feels in large part as if The BeetlesYellow Submarine film had been quite a large influence – in other words, it feels like what we’re told being on an acid trip is like, with flying whales, shifting psychodelic colours, etc. In the congress itself we see people assuming others’ shapes – one of the new developments is you can essentially become other people by inhaling their digitized essence, at least in shape – and the next future development intended is to be able to have them in your mind – that is to say, just like the studio can have Robin and other actors whom they digitized appear in any roles they wish, those who inhale a star’s essence will be able to create a mental film with the star being controlled by their desires.

Robin Wright in Ari Folman's The Congress

Getting digitized! – Wooden Acting

Then we have realists or at least anti-film studio rebels who storm the congress, Robin is infected by a heavy dose of hallucinogens and is put to slumber until she could be cured, only to awaken much later to an utopian world, which is drawn of course, where people get to see what they want to, or what others want them to see – the chemical world has people submitting to the world how they want to be observed, and the way you observe others is a mixture of the signals they send out on how they want to be observed and your perception-bias – your unique experiences which shape how you take in the chemical signals these people send and how you decipher them.

I usually don’t spend so much detail actually talking about a movie or show in my posts, but in this case I intertwined it with some themes, and it is relevant for the discussion of the themes I want to bring up, additionally, I suspect this is not a movie many people had actually watched, so I’ve decided to make the case for it in my post.

This movie actually has quite a few thematic ideas that are used throughout, and many that are thrown at us all over, which could have made for a compelling case, or even story, but I feel the movie doesn’t add up on either account, due to how much there is, and how little it does to gel together. I’d love to see alternate readings, however, especially if they can manage to do so without actually cutting off considerable content from the film.

Before I actually get to the thematic content, I want to discuss the acting – while the actors had been acting flesh and blood, the acting was solid, if nothing spectacular, including quite a few moments where I felt as if I was watching an almost college-film, especially in scenes including Robin’s daughter. Harvey Keitel‘s piece as Robin’s manager had been the best in the film, and even that was nearly impromptu, as I will cover later.
But once the characters had morphed over to the chemical dreamland, it felt as if the level of acting had fallen off completely. I might be holding voice actors only to a higher standard seeing how much time I spend watching animated films, cartoons and anime, but the acting had been very flat and lacking in any conviction once the actors had lost their ability to act with their bodies, not that the acting was superb beforehand as well, as I touched upon.

Ari Folman's The Congress

How people wish to present themselves in this brave, new world.

The main thematic undercurrent in the show has to do with the question of choice – Robin had made plenty of bad choices in the past and so had undermined her career – all because she wanted to have the ability to choose her scripts, and choose to run away from roles once she didn’t like them, even after committing to them – that is the other half of the thematic thread – choices as a way to run away.

In a manner similar to the choices Lestat presents others in Interview with a Vampire (“I will give you what I never had, a choice.” – but only given to people on the verge of death or in the throes of depression), the choice being given Robin is not much of a choice at all, she won’t get to act. When she, after being resurrected from her coma, is faced with the choice of whether to remain living in the drug-free world, where people are aware of the truth but aren’t genuinely happy, or can go back to the endless revelry of those who live in their drug-addled paradise, but after she had been deprived of the effect of the drugs, she knows what most others do not – the shiny world which we see, with happy, colourful people, a land of bounty? It is a lie. The people are unkempt, unwashed, unfed, with many lying dying by the sidelines or huddled around burning trash, to warm their bodies even as their minds tell them that they live in splendor.

She chooses to run away from the real world, to run back to the drug-addled world, to run back to happiness. True, she does so in order to meet her son, who is effectively blind and deaf, but due to the chemical world operating on different receptors, he can operate in it. But still, is she not running away? This is coupled with the first half of the movie hammering at how all the choices Robin had been making are bad choices, and so, what does it say of this choice? There’s another point to the ending of the film where I doubt my reading is the one they were going for, but I am going to present it anyway, including why it’s a “bad choice”.

Ari Folman's The Congress

Such magnificent vistas, which hide the truth.

Choices, as I will also argue in one of my upcoming pieces on Gatchaman CROWDS aren’t measured by their result, they are measured at the point where you make the decision, including what is known to you. Hollywood films often go for the good end, against all odds, as a way to sell a sweet story of hope to us, but they often result in the decision being a bad one, because as said above – it was made against all evidence. Robin is told that the chance to meet her son, and even if she meets him, recognize him to be more or less zero, because to perceive someone relates both on what they send and how you decipher it, which is also why she is unlikely to meer her boyfriend from the addled world after leaving it and returning – the experience will change her, and so she is unlikely to be able to perceive him as she did before.

So she does meet her son, against all odds, but here is my question – is he really her son? Or is this her desire of perception throwing itself across the external world? This is another aspect of choice – being seen as you wish to be seen, and seeing what you wish to see. Some would argue that this is already how the world is, at least the second half – what we look for, and what we don’t wish to see certainly affect how we perceive reality, what is known as confirmation bias.

Another thing that is thrown out there and is deeply interesting, but not at all discussed, is the utopia-dystopia divide. Is this an utopia or a dystopia? So long everyone is happy, is it truly a dystopia? The topic of whether a dystopia is also a dystopia from within the world, or only from the external viewpoint of one of us is quite an interesting question, one which also carries with it issues of moral relativism; but not too deeply, since tales of utopias and dystopias are almost always intended as parables for those who observe from without, and not actual societies that need to be treated with the respect that real cultures merit.

Robin Wright in Ari Folman's The Congress

Welcome to the desert of the real world.

The message here? Why, we all make bad choices, but they’re the only choices we have – we will use drugs to be happy when the world is grey and hopeless, and we would rather control the way we see others and we are seen by them, even if it means shutting our eyes to reality. And of course, we’ll make bad choices in hopes of a happy end, one that such films are more than happy to give to us, even if this end can only be called bitter-sweet.

Conclusion: This movie is quite an experience, I’ll give it that, but the pacing leaves a lot to be desired, the acting is great only once and only passable most of the time, and the plot goes all over the place – both in terms of story and in terms of theme, and seems more interested in subjecting you to a spectacle than actually amounting to anything more than a shiny, wishes-to-be-glorious mess. I give this movie 5.6/10 drug-addled nods.

Another thing that might interest you is something I’ve read in a local paper in Hebrew, from an interview with Ari Folman, where he said due to only having very limited scenes with his actors, he actually created lines and whole scenes for them on the spot, which weren’t in the original plot – this includes the scene where Harvey Keitel’s character, Robin’s manager, tells the story of how he used her, used her weakness, and how he became a manager, in order to have her cry and act when she is being scanned for digitization. When the concern of the film-maker is to get more scenes with his actors on the spot, rather than adhere to the actual plot and structure of the story (the whole scene where she’s being scanned – they came across that aperture and he decided they had to use it in the film), is it any wonder that the end result isn’t entirely coherent? Even for a film that deals with the blurring of boundaries and drug-addled wish-dreams…


2 comments on “Ari Folman’s The Congress – A Thematic Jumble of Sights and Sounds

  1. Excellently put, Guy. I JUST saw this tonight and did so after reading reviews that said “it asks a lot of questions but then just walks away from them”. And the pacing. Holy hell it was a drawn out film (no pun intended). Though did you happen to notice the excessive use of “God damn it” or “God-given” or all other “God” references in the ‘Congress’ scene?

    Anyway thanks for the insight, I was really wrapping my head around this but it seems pretentious for pretentiousness sake, no?

    • Guy says:

      Isn’t “pretentious for pretentiousness’ sake” sort of redundant? The whole concept of pretentiousness is that something is trying to be something other than it is. And it’s not really “for the sake of pretentiousness” as much as us decreeing that it failed.

      It’s related to how it felt drawn out, or the pacing – it tried to cover too much stuff, and the juxtaposition of moods, and themes, and styles, was just too much for this one film. I mean, I left Cloud Atlas very “tired” for similar reasons, but there it felt more cohesive, and tighter, though it still felt like two meals in the space of one. The Congress felt like it tried to tackle several issues all at once, and each somewhat detracted from the others.

      If I try to think now not just about a theme, but about a topic? Then I’ll tie it to something you’ve touched upon, since yes, I noticed the Evangelical approach in said speech. What’s another topic, besides “truth” that keeps coming up all throughout the film? Very much related to the concept of “Choice” I brought in the above piece? Power. The power to control others, the power to shape reality, the poor and the rich, and the ability to escape ourselves. Power to have choices, and the power that forces us to make choices, and that strips from us the ability to choose.

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