March 16th 2015 04:47
The live-action opening 40 minutes of Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) are marvellous. His latest, and follow up to the brilliant animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), takes a speculative peek into the future in much the same way Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE (2002) did, imagining a world in which flesh-and-blood actors have become obsolete. Instead, they sign over their identities to be infinitely scanned and manipulated inside a computer, thus eliminating the ‘lousy choices’ that Robin Wright, playing a version of herself, has made, derailing her career and effectively removing her from the A-list. Her beaten-down agent Al (Harvey Keitel) implores her to go with the flow, to live out her life in luxury whilst allowing her computer simulated self to prosper in the roles she never dared contemplate, whilst smarmy studio chief Jeff Green (Danny Huston) pares scenarios back to their basics in his hard sell of what the future holds for her kind. All three performers are excellent but Folman brings these early scenes to life with his eye for unique design details, the striking backdrops all brilliantly lit with a mix of natural and artificial white lights. Inside Wright’s home – an old hangar for what used to be an airport - a balanced palette of flags and meticulously coloured shapes provide a vibe somehow imbuing the scenes with both sterility and warmth.
Niccol’s film, as entertaining as it was, got bogged down ultimately in the need to service the story with very conventional notions of identity, corruption and abuse of power. Folman on the other hand, simply won’t be corralled by such orthodoxy. There’s not a whiff of a formulaic counterpoint that might hamper the spontaneous freefall of his vision. Once it leaps forward 20 years and sends Wright into the heart of a 'restricted animated zone', the bedlam begins. Ostensibly she’s to be a guest at Miramount’s Futurist Conference whilst re-negotiating her next contract, but this is a meagre set-up from which will sprout an uncontainable plot, spilling free of the borderlines of any rational imagination. After a full-scale rebellion is launched on the Abrahama Hotel, you’ll have just as much fun spotting, in the background of many scenes, famous figures from pop culture past and present as sorting through the ramifications of Folman’s shape-shifting, mind-expanding extrapolations of his lightly referenced source material, Stanislaw Lem’s novel.
Occasionally the weight of Folman’s ideas sees them crumbling in upon themselves - a natural by-product of letting your imaginings run unchecked - but the level of his artistry combined with a free-spirited audaciousness means that The Congress grows in stature the more you submerge yourself in its notions of sanity and madness sharing borderlines, in the scale of its outlandish imagery, and just go with the flow. With Max Richter’s eclectic, emotionally enriching score working reflexively to musically elucidate the chaos, Folman searches for a humane core on which to hang Robin’s quest to find her son, lost on the other side of the mirror, as it were, between the real and animated spheres. The Congress will confuse, expand your mind, confound - in the best possible way - and astonish. It’s a minor masterpiece of sorts that may only give us a glimpse at its real depths with repeat viewings.
The Congress is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.