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REVIEW – The Congress (2013)

December 16, 2014

Videovista has my review of Ari Folman’s second feature film The Congress. Set in the immediate future, the film revolves around a fictionalised version of the actress Robin Wright who decides to sell all of her image rights to Hollywood and retire from public life for a period of no less than twenty years. In return for the paying the actress a generous pension, Hollywood will be able to use the image and name of Robin Wright to make all of the films and adverts they deem appropriate for her brand. With no awkward human actress to wrangle, the studios turn Robin Wright into a global superstar but the next contract pushes much further… twenty years from now, people won’t be wanting to watch Robin Wright, they will be wanting to be Robin Wright.

Loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel called The Futurological Congress, The Congress is best understood as a cinematic critique of contemporary cinema. Less a film than an extended visual essay designed to critique cinema itself, The Congress is a collage of carefully assembled cinematic references designed to draw our attention to the fact that contemporary Hollywood is in the business of wholesale emotional manipulation in which film is never anything more than a means to an end:

The Congress is a difficult film to evaluate as it is a cynical and manipulative film designed to draw our attention to the fact that Hollywood films are incredibly cynical and manipulative. The sheer density of the text draws us up and away from the drama and encourages us to engage with the film on a purely intellectual level as Robin is never more than ballast in a film that feels more like an animated meta-textual essay than a conventional cinematic narrative. Readers of science fiction who have encountered the work of Adam Roberts will be familiar with this effect as both Roberts and Folman produce beautifully constructed and achingly clever works filled with neat little ideas and interesting things to say that really make you think but rarely make you feel.

There is nothing new in films suggesting that corporations want to take over reality but Folman’s critique is surprisingly explicit. Rather than attacking a faceless multinational corporation, Folman aims his guns directly at contemporary Hollywood.  Particularly surprising is his willingness to critique actors who sell their image rights to corporations who then go on to use those image rights as a means of putting a human face on their exploitative business practices.  Consider this quote from a Variety article about the sponsorship deals built around Iron Man 2:

“This was not a hugely recognized superhero character,” Bob Sabouni, senior VP of business development and promotions for Marvel Entertainment told Daily Variety . “These partners got the mystique of the Marvel brand the first time around and took their faith in that. They were pretty well rewarded and are now stepping up their game and creating even better programs.”

Which partners are we talking about?

Marvel’s “Iron Man 2,” which rockets into megaplexes May 7, has brought back most of the promotional partners — including Audi, LG Mobile, 7-Eleven, Dr. Pepper, Oracle and Burger King — that spent considerable coin to help launch the first film in 2008.[…] The Hershey Co.’ Reese’s brand, Royal Purple motor oil and Symantec’s Norton software are also partners.

It is something of a misnomer to refer to the likes of Disney and Marvel Entertainment as film companies as the artefacts they produce behave more like malware than conventional films. Once introduced into a cultural space, cultural malware sucks up all available resources to the point where it is almost impossible to get away from said product let alone start a conversation about anything else. Everywhere you look, there will be articles about what the product is like and what it tells us about other products that will be released in years to come. Anyone who happens to be plugged into a cultural space that has become infected by cultural malware will most likely become infected too meaning that smart, principled commentators will soon devote all of their time to writing about stupid, regressive cultural artefacts while completely ignoring films, books and TV series that are not themselves disease vectors. Once established in a cultural system, the malware will use the system to undertake tasks that are harmful to the components of said system such as encouraging them to buy over-priced status objects and foodstuffs that make them significantly more likely to develop a serious health problem. Fully aware that these harmful tasks might cause the system to react against the infection, the cultural malware also seeks to replicate itself by encouraging people to get excited about the next generation of cultural pathogens.

I was not entirely convinced by The Congress in much the same way as I was not entirely convinced by his first film Waltz with Bashir.

When I reviewed Waltz with Bashir back in 2008, I expressed my frustration with Folman’s apparent lack of focus.  Having now re-watched the film, it occurs to me that what I originally took to be a lack of intellectual focus was actually an intelligent man flinching from the truth and attempting to derail his own line of thought. The reason Folman sabotaged his own film is that the process of therapeutic self-analysis documented by the film lead him to a door that he refused to open, a door marked ‘What Ari Folman did during the 1982 Lebanon War’.  In fact, you could very well argue that Waltz with Bashir is all about a man being offered the chance to learn the truth about who he really is only for that man to decide that he is better off not knowing.

 

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My review of The Congress calls it a less personal project than Waltz with Bashir but one could argue that The Congress is actually Folman’s attempt to confront the tissue of lies he has assembled around his involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War. In the film, Robin Wright is presented with a choice between returning to the misery of the real world in order to maybe track down her children and remaining in the chemically-induced corporate virtual reality with a man she loves. Wright chooses the first option but Folman’s explanation as to why she would make such a decision feels just as evasive as the conclusion to Waltz with Bashir where he pointedly refuses to ask the questions that would help him connect with his past and discover how involved he really was in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. If Folman can’t convince himself about the virtues of the real world, how can he possibly hope to convince us? The philosopher Robert Nozick asked a similar question in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia but the argument he presented for refusing to plug yourself into a bliss machine was just as unconvincing as Folman’s. Folman’s The Congress is engaging, frustrating and at least too clever by half but it remains that rarest and most previous of breeds: a work of cinematic science fiction that encourages us to think rather than gorge on hydrogenated vegetable fat while thinking about Robert Downey Jr.

 

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