One film I completely ignored missed during my exploits in Cannes Film Festival earlier this year was Ari Folman’s The Congress, relegated in the Director’s Fortnight where films apparently unworthy of an Official Competition or Un Certain Regard slot are thrown into. I won’t make any pathetic ruse – I was busy hobnobbing with the Coens, Soderberghs and Winding-Refns that Folman somehow eluded my attention. Shame on me, then, as his sophomore effort would have been one of the best films I’d have seen in the festival. Now relinquished over London’s own film marathon, under the restrictive-sounding Cult strand (as if Folman’s film is far too peculiar to appeal to a wider demographic), The Congress would have suited better in Dare, or even in the Official Competition.
More thematically and stylistically audacious than any other films you’ll clap your eyes on this year, it melds live-action with 70’s retro animation to often breathtaking effect, purposefully fusing the medium of cinema and graphical art to concoct a potent philosophical critique to the Hollywood industry, crass commercialism and the cultural delusions of our age. Understandably, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – anyone prescribing to the Hollywood mainstream bullshit factory would deem The Congress as too difficult to fathom or too unconventional to fit any identifiable groove. But any individual with a fully functional cluster of brain cells and fostering the capacity to contemplate for themselves would be scintillated by Folman’s visionary work, which openly criticises the very same industry that cannibalise actors, players and the audience who have constantly bought the formulaic fantasy Hollywood has been peddling since fuck knows when.
On one level, The Congress serves as a passionate outcry against Hollywood’s attitude towards ageing and tyrannical corporate authority. Wright, in an ego-less, vanity-free, heart-rending performance, sends up her screen persona, furiously lashing at every time Danny Huston’s incredibly smarmy film executive (one of the film’s great supporting roles, next to Harvey Keitel’s agent) magnificently berates her “poor choices” in acting roles. The studio wins, of course, and Wright is compelled to proceed into one of the film’s quietly moving sequences – a performance capture inside a ball of laser scanning – a scene that could have ended up being cheesy and reductive but instead transforming into the revelatory heart of the film. Keitel, who hasn’t been this good for ages, peels poignant humanity in his seemingly caricatured film agent and extracts a beautiful range of emotions from Wright.
Then there’s the other divisive half of the film. One would argue that as soon as The Congress leaves its meta-reality and plunges into an unfettered realm of psychedelic animation, the film becomes unhinged, insanely defying logic and practical convention. In other words, almost everything goes batshit crazy as soon as the pixels start pouring in. But Folman, who crafted the immensely devastating war memoir Waltz with Bashir, uses the medium of animation here to emotionalise the illusions, the absurd dystopia that govern The Futurist Congress – a Gilliam-Miyazaki hybrid animated universe dipped in mind-fucking acid where everyone manifest their innermost Hollywood desire – just the way Bashir employed animation to psychologically unravel personal and political trauma. Think about it, Robin Wright’s journey into the animated world in itself is a scathing critique to the technological pixellation she signed herself in the first place – a commercial movie world technically dominated by robotic franchises, CGI escapism and the celebrity-obsessed culture. This is our current zeitgeist laid out in bitmap. And it’s made more astounding that despite the pixels, Folman eloquently vocalises a kind of enraged truth and his leading lady, Wright manages to even intensify an emotional register throughout. It takes some semblance of courage for somebody whose career began in the studio system, and turned around to expose the devious corporate deception behind the mask of escapist fantasy. “Wake up, wake up,” Wright berates a horde of audience at one rousing scene, which is also The Congress‘s plea for liberation from a crap-induced Hollywood illusions our culture is addled with. This is summed up in one devastating piece of editing, allowing us to pay heed to what Folman is really saying – that the mainstream audience often prefer to purchase some bullshit fantasy rather than man up and face the real, unvarnished truth.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Ari Folman | CAST: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, John Hamm, Paul Giamatti | SCREENPLAY: Ari Folman | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 122 mins | GENRE: Drama/Sci-fi/Animation | COUNTRY: Israel