Directed by Ari Folman
The Congress is quite the experience. It’s a philosophical science-fiction movie set both in a version of our present reality as well as a deeply disturbing distant future. Robin Wright plays a version of herself, and the self-awareness of the film adds to the theme of representation and identity. In The Congress, Robin Wright is strongly encouraged to sell the rights to her likeness to a fictional film studio and retire from acting. Once the studio has digitized her, she is forced to retire from acting.
The first act of the film deals with Wright considering the implications of such a decision, but it’s more or less made for her. As the threatening studio head, Jeff Green (Danny Huston) makes clear, she can either sell them her likeness or disappear. In this situation, giving her representation over to the studio is the only way to survive, even if it still means she will soon disappear regardless.
After Wright is scanned, the movie jumps ahead twenty years, and most of the rest of the film is animated. This sequence of the film is meant to make you squirm, and it does so in a way only animation allows. The world of the future is strange to us, having taken the implications of act 1 and pushing them to the extreme. The film’s second act takes place in Abrahama City where Wright is to speak at the “Futurological Congress.”
In Abrahama City, people inhale chemicals that turn them into animated avatars of themselves. These representations distort the real person and allow each individual to be whoever they want to be. Animated Robin Wright walks through this strange environment with curiosity and bewilderment. At one point, in her hotel room, all the lights go out. She asks the robot butler if the lights have really gone out or if she is just imagining this. Says the butler, “everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”
The Congress is an unsettling movie that pulls you further and further from reality while implying that this is where we could be headed. It’s a story that establishes a premise and pushes it to the extreme until it breaks.
The idea of taking a performer’s likeness and using it without the actual actor present is not a new phenomenon. It has been used to create younger versions of actors in Marvel movies, and it was used to bring back to life a deceased actor for Star Wars’ Rogue One. This practice is one large gray area, and as the technology improves, the idea of creating entirely computer-generated films made to look real becomes easier to imagine.
So the world presented to us in the first act is the sort of strange but not so hard to imagine future before us. But then the film imagines what this could all mean down the line. When an actor sells his or her likeness, that person becomes a commodity as the person is separated from the image. When animated Robin Wright meets with Jeff Green to discuss renewing her contract, he explains that they want to turn her next into a substance so that people can consume her and become her. It’s just the next stage in losing control of your representation.
After the point, the reality of the film becomes a little harder to discern. After giving a keynote speech at the Congress, Wright voices her displeasure with this technology just as a group of rebels opposed to this technology attack.
Wright is protected from harm by Dylan Truliner (voiced by Jon Hamm), an animator who for twenty years has worked exclusively with Wright’s likeness and fallen in love with her. She explains that this wasn’t truly her, but he doesn’t care. It might as well have been.
Then Wright may or may not have been executed and frozen for another twenty years as doctors explain that she has been poisoned by the hallucinogens. They freeze her in order to wait until they can cure her illness.
When she’s finally awoken, Wright reunites with Dylan who explains that in the new world, anyone can take any shape they wish and that ego no longer exists. Everything is bliss. Despite the affection Wright feels for Dylan, she wishes to return to the real, non-animated world to be with her son, whom we met in act 1. Dylan tells her he has a cyanide-like pill that is only powerful enough for one person, and she takes it and wakes up.
Wright now walks around as a real, non-animated person. All the characters she walked through before are now just people who stand around, dazed and undiscerning. The ego-less bliss they feel translates to the image of someone lobotomized.
Wright makes her way to her son’s doctor, Dr. Barker (Paul Giamatti). We met Dr. Barker briefly in act 1, and now he says that her son, Aaron, has crossed over into the animated zone, where he and everyone else has lost all sense of themselves. He will be impossible to find, Barker explains.
The movie ends with Wright crossing back over but into a new animated reality. She relives her son’s memories and then finds her son, even as she herself resembles her son. I don’t completely get it, but it’s crazy and sublime.
Okay, so this film worked for me on an emotional level. It’s disturbing, moving and thought-provoking. In some ways it’s what every movie should be. It says something about our current world, about the nature of existence, reality, love and probably some other stuff I’m not yet aware of. It’s the type of movie that pulls you in, maybe slowly at first but which is utterly captivating. The Congress creates its own reality and slowly assimilates you into this world. It’s an experience.
I found the end of the movie deeply cathartic and heart-wrenching. The relationship between Wright and her son Aaron isn’t a huge focus of the early part of the movie. In fact, I didn’t even address it at the start of my write up for the plot. It’s just there to the side. Wright is an actress, and her son, with a disease that slowly erodes his hearing and vision, is someone she needs to care for.
In the second act he is a grown man whom we barely see (and even then it’s in an animated state), so it’s easy to lose track of him, particularly as we’re caught up in the strange peculiarities of this new world. In the end, then, the emotional heart of the story turns out to be Wright’s desperation to return to her son, and in some ways it feels as though this isn’t enough to ground the story. But it is.
Maybe it’s because of the implication of how much time has passed, or maybe it’s just that as an audience we are so removed from reality as the movie progresses that Aaron represents the old world, our world. Wright’s eagerness to get back to him reflects our own discomfort with this new world. We just want to get back to the recognizable world of act 1.
This movies seems to work in a way similar to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. In both movies, the story dramatically speeds up after the first act. The ‘premise’ turns out to just be the first in a series of many technological advancements which becomes increasingly disturbing as we are further and further removed from the real world. In both cases, the main character is frozen for many years (particularly in A.I.), only to wake up to an unrecognizable new reality. Their goal is to escape this new reality and re-enter the one they used to know, even if it no longer exists. But it doesn’t matter if it’s real as long as they can believe it’s real.
Up Next: Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), The Disaster Artist (2017), The Third Man (1949)