'The Congress' Is Ari Folman's Ode to Cinema

Amanda Gilroy

While The Congress suggests the entertainment industry is dystopian, its own rich strangeness offers a utopian corrective.

The Congress

Director: Ari Folman
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle
Rated: NR
Studio: Drafthouse Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-07-14 (VOD)
UK date: 2014-08-15 (General release)
“You look fantastic, animated, I mean.”

-- Jeff Green (Danny Huston)

The first image we see in The Congress is an extended close-up of Robin Wright’s face, two tears on her cheeks. As the camera slowly pulls out, we see what's behind her, a large window that reveals an out-of-focus background. A disembodied voice -- soon revealed to belong to her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel) -- berates Wright for her “lousy choices”/ Her “whole story”. he asserts, is dominated by her choice of “lousy movies” and “lousy men”.

With this striking opening, Ari Folman's film, available on VOD this month and in select US theaters 29 August, introduces its central themes, the relationship between visuality and storytelling and the differences between sensory and cognitive perceptions. Loosely adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress, the movie has Wright playing a version of herself, a 40-something actress who has made bad romantic decisions. She appears in two modes.

In the film's first third, shot as live-action, she struggles with her waning career and the demands of parenting two teenagers, one of whom, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has a degenerative condition that causes sensory deprivation. Pressured by Jeff (Danny Huston), the smarmy head of the wittily named Miramount Studios, she makes a Faustian pact, agreeing not to perform in public for 20 years, while a digital process preserves her as an eternal 34-year-old. The studio will own this “Robin Wright”, capitalizing on her cinematic past as Buttercup (The Princess Bride) and Jenny (Forrest Gump) and using her image in a new filmic economy of scanned actors.

This first part is a damning indictment of ageism in Hollywood, especially the limited career options for actresses. While Robin laments her loss of “the gift of choice”. Al counters that being scanned is preferable to the fate of being “face-lifted to death.” Moreover, the film offers a bleak take on the corporatization of creativity beyond its swipes at the cult of youthful celebrity. New technologies might change film production, but they don't alter power structures. Al says that Robin remains "their puppet": actors and consumers both remain controlled by a system that denies individual identities.

In the animated second section, set 20 years into the future, the rotoscope style of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, gets an extreme makeover. The film draws on a century of animation techniques to create maximum sensory impact. A new, grey-haired, animated Robin wanders through the crazy collage cartoon landscape of Abrahama, a place indebted to The Yellow Submarine, Ralph Bakshi movies, manga, Max Fleischer, and Betty Boop cartoons. When she visits the Futurological Congress, where we share in the pleasures of recognition, spotting animated versions of Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and Grace Jones, as well as creatures that would be at home in Disney movies and others borrowed from The Matrix. Psychedelic flowers grow out of buildings. There are few rules inside this rabbit hole; as Robin describes the place, it's the product of “a genius designer on an acid trip.”

The shift from live action to animation is disruptive. We’ve grown attached to Robin and Al, and the performances of Wright and Keitel are so accomplished that our first reaction is to want more of the same. But the rupture is precisely the point, forcing us to question the parameters of perception. This "animated zone". as the film terms it, poses questions about the boundaries between life and death, definitions of reality, and the role of consumers' as well as producers' imagination.

Here the film takes up the legacy of the cartoon form, moving from physical to metaphysical reality. Much as Eisenstein observes of Disney’s characters, we know that animated figures are not living, that they are technological tricks, but we feel them as active, thinking creatures. This sense of life comes not from verisimilitude, but from our impression that cartoon characters are emotionally motivated. Playing on the double meaning of “animation” -- vivacity and also a sequence of photographed drawings -- the second part of the film uncovers the moving reality of the unreal.

Thus, we feel what cartoon Robin feels, and understand how others feel about her. When she sings a haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will”. we share her sense of surrender without any need to rationalize her ontological status. As if standing in for us, Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm), the animator who has controlled Robin's image for 20 years, has fallen in love with his creation, and is willing to make "real" sacrifices for that love.

Our emotional response to cartoon Robin only intensifies the live-action segment's critique of gender ageism and celebrity culture. As advertisements featuring her face float by on blimps, we see that her CGI avatar is now a superstar in a trashy sci-fi franchise titled Rebel Robot Robin. Even so, the studio proposes a new incarnation of Robin Wright, one to replace the CGI figure and to literalize the metaphor of celebrity consumption. She will be chemically available for ingestion, as fans can imagine themselves as her in any genre of their choice (including Holocaust movies, porn, and zombie movies), via drinking a milkshake or eating an omelet.

What they get is a distracting illusion, as the scene in which the evangelical Miramount president urges his followers to embrace their dreams makes clear. It's a textbook example of the Frankfurt School’s indictment of the culture industry. The masses sway and cheer as he morphs from Clint Eastwood to Jesus to Robot Robin. The film industry of the future turns out to be a redaction of the past, within which Robin, at last, can only rage against the machine, urging the people to “Wake Up!”

But this may not be possible. The shift from live action to animation reveals how the former was already full of the extraordinary: Wright and her kids live in a converted aircraft hangar that looks more like a movie set than a home. In the geodesic sampling room, she overcomes her performance anxiety in reacting to Al's initial monologue, at once articulating the film's critique but also exemplifying the power of storytelling itself as it moves Robin to tears. What is real?

As the end of the film returns briefly to live action and then back again to animation, Robin must make a choice between keeping her memories and identity intact or embracing the still expanding possibilities of reinvention. “Movies are old news, remnants of the last millennium,” says Miramount’s dictator. The Congress pays homage to this past. It’s a film in love with the history of cinema, but it also pushes the medium forward in form and content.

So while the movie suggests the entertainment industry is dystopian, its own rich strangeness offers a utopian corrective. The Congress is an ode to cinema that celebrates -- indeed, animates -- the affective power of imagination.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.