By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Directed by Ari Folman
Screenplay by Ari Folman
A dystopian future is firmly presented in the movie, The Congress and not everyone, including audiences, will realize it. Here, it weaves both satire and science fiction into one superlative Alice in Wonderland style narrative with elements of Yellow Submarine, Cool World and The Matrix weaved in. Maybe on a second viewing, audiences can fully appreciate this film for what it is.
For most of the first act, this movie superbly pokes fun at the Hollywood system about how it treats its own people. From its producers, stars and cinematographers, they are nothing but cogs in a wheel. Back in the Golden and Silver Age of filmmaking, these products were being developed in a formulaic manner. But in the early days when cinema was fresh out of the womb, filmmakers were allowed to express themselves because the rules were not established. But when the business of making a film became more prominent, it had to follow a system.
Viewers are following the life and times of Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) a struggling actress who refuses to sell herself to the studio system at the start of the movie. But to help treat her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a rare disease that will rob him of his senses, she has to change her mind. If her resistance can be likened to moments from film history, Charlie Chaplin would say classic cinema is dying (all over again). He loved the silent films, but when the talkies emerged, his argument was: who really wants to hear The Tramp speak?
Flash forward to today and what this movie so nicely hammered forth, James Cameron will have fits. What he hopes to do with creating computer avatars is exactly what this movie is criticizing. Here, much of the first act hits hard in how bad cinema can get once the virtual likenesses take over. It will put many people behind the camera and in front of the scenes out of work. Cameron hopes to use that technology when it advances far enough for Battle Angel — if it ever gets made. But what would the next step be once that level of computer rendering gets mixed with reality? Google’s Earwear product in creating augmented reality may well be the new wave. It has the potential to alter reality in ways that LSD can not.
With The Congress, reality can be changed by the simple sniff of a drug. Freedom is challenged when Miramount Studios — a parody of Miramax and Paramount — invites Wright to their new headquarters to renew her contract and what happens next is a look through the mirror darkly. This movie changes pace from its satire to become a personal journey for Wright. She hated the fact she sold her likeness away. The new story that emerges from this midst and the way it gets included seems confusing when it is introduced mid-way in its lengthy animated segment.
This film is challenging to understand because in one moment, the story is all about the loss of freedom for Robin Wright and her children. Suddenly, there’s this story about a resistance movement, and without an explanation, just what viewers are watching is much like a William Gibson product. This elliptical tale can be understood after a second or third watch, but when it is currently touring the film festival circuit, viewers better come prepared with a ticket to another screening.
Although this movie is beautiful to behold with its colourful geometry and wonderful acting by Danny Huston playing a tired studio executive, the complexity of the narrative is psychotic at best. When this movie is loosely based off the book, The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem, not every detail was translated into the film.
Fortunately, a proper North American theatrical and VOD release is being planned for 2014 by Drafthouse Films. Let’s hope a video release, along with a director’s commentary, will be quickly forthcoming.
3½ Stars out of 5