What do I even say?
The Congress is the second live action-animation hybrid by Ari Folman, whose Waltz With Bashir is one of the most strikingly original and haunting films of recent years. And this might be one of the nuttiest films of all time. Is it good? Is it bad? It’s kind of both. It’s entertaining, it’s provocative, it’s confounding, it’s beautiful, it’s troubling, it’s stupid, it’s clever, it’s deeply meaningful and also utterly pointless. Or more accurately it’s too many points to the point that whatever the point was supposed to be is confused. But confused in a very beautiful way.
I’d compare its problems to a more extreme inverse of the narrative issues with Howl’s Moving Castle. The first hour of Howl’s Moving Castle is a somewhat loose but generally on point adaptation of the Dianna Wynne Jones’ source novel, forming a solid character-focused narrative, while the second half throws in a whole bunch of war stuff not from the book that feels like a different movie. The first hour of The Congress is mostly original material, unrelated to the supposed source material of Stanislaw Lem’s book The Futurological Congress, and it’s where the story is at its strongest, focused on Robin Wright selling her image to digital animators. Why Robin Wright? Folman probably wanted an actress with immense talent but a pretty much dead career. I guess it’s kind of unfortunate for him then that Robin Wright’s career came back before this movie’s release with House of Cards. Regardless, she’s great in the early live-action scenes. The scene where she’s scanned into the computer while Harvey Keitel’s “Miramount” studio exec tells her stories that provoke a range of emotions from her is an astonishing showcase of physical acting. Fortunately her vocal acting’s pretty strong too, as after the scanning the movie flashes forward 20 years where she’s attending “The Congress” in a “Restricted Animation Zone.” One sniff of a special drug and everything turns into a mix of The Triplets of Belleville and The Yellow Submarine (the Yellow Submarine is in fact parked outside The Congress).
The animation is a joy to watch for anyone who’s been missing fluid theatrical-quality stretch-and-squash Western-style 2D animation. But at The Congress, the plot issues start coming in. This is where the movie starts adapting Lem, and the movie stretches itself to turn Lem’s Communist allegory into a Hollywood one. Some of the translated ideas sort of work (the hallucinogens that pacify people into submission in the book make sense as the products of an entertainment industry obsessed with escapism and sick of working with real people), while others don’t (the political revolutions here never make sense). Some of the original ideas here also confuse things (supposedly all of the people at The Congress except for Wright, Keitel, and an animator played by Jon Hamm are imaginary creations of Hamm’s, yet at other times it seems like they’re real people who’ve merely taken drugs like Wright and co.). It’s all too much to make sense of. But it sure is cool-looking.
The ending is troubling on several levels. Folman tries to pull off a “jump to reality” trick similar to the ending of Waltz With Bashir. Here it’s stylistically impressive but the meaning isn’t as strong. A late monologue by one of the “doctors in the sky” particularly bothered me. It tries to compare the hallucinogenic state created by the Miramount drugs to anti-depressants, while in the process showing a dangerous misunderstanding of depression. Now I don’t claim to fully understand depression, but from what I do understand is that I’m pretty damn sure that depression doesn’t make you “see the truth.” If anything, it would seem to block out truths, making rational decisions next to impossible (Zoe Quinn’s interactive fiction piece Depression Quest does a good job illustrating this), while anti-depressants, if they’re working right, open up the possibility of making such decisions (I’ve taken anti-depressants for anxiety and this seems to be similar to how they work for me). If depression=”truth” is a point this movie’s trying to make, it’s an awful point. I’m still not sure what the point of the very ending scenes was (Did the son turn into John Hamm in that first person shot where his clothes suddenly changed? That would make the story a lot more cohesive as well as way more perverse…).
The Congress is available on demand and now in limited release. It exists. What you do with that information is up to you.