Unlike its autobiographic predecessor Waltz With Bashir (2008), in which director Ari Folman portrays his experiences as a soldier in the First Lebanon War, The Congress (2013) is partly influenced by Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress and delivers a satirical perspective onto the Hollywood industry and humanity’s longing for total freedom.
Robin Wright plays ‘herself’ as an aging actress and single mother of two with little hope of ever being offered a part again. Once Hollywood’s sweetheart in The Princess Bride (1987) and Forrest Gump (1994), she is now said to be too moody, too unpredictable on set. Instead Miramount offers her a final, one-off deal: a scanning device will save her body and facial expression in a digital database, allowing the studio to reproduce “the actress Robin Wright” in whatever film they want. The concept of the actor, and the surrounding industry of agents, bodyguards and stylists, is outdated. Although she dreads the loss of control over choosing her roles, her son’s impairing health and her agent’s rant about Hollywood treating actors like puppets either way, make her consent. Giving up the gift of choice becomes her gate to freedom.
20 years later, Robin attends the Futurological Congress in Abrahama, Miramount’s very own, strictly animated playground. Everything here is in our minds – by sniffing a chemical substance guests of the Congress can choose who they are and what they look like. Soon the invention will be available for everyone, and hallucination will replace reality. The imaginative world of film is history, Miramount proclaims the “era of free choice”. Following a revolt by activists, Robin gets trapped in her animated character and spends the next 20 years longing for her son and the physical world.
Folman takes us on a tour-de-force through the history of show-business, filling the animated future with characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Marilyn Monroe or Grace Jones, and honouring the grandmaster of Sci-Fi Stanley Kubrick with unmistakable references to his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1964’s Dr. Stranglove. But Folman also draws from another milestone film combining live action and animation: Robert Zemecki’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Many cheerful visual resemblances aside, Folman also quotes the industry jargon depicted in Disney’s self-deprecating 1988 hit by the word. Just as a ‘toon’ like Dumbo, Robin sold her acting character “for peanuts”.
But the design of the animated world is not the only visually stunning element. A colourful journey through and through, The Congress‘ real world prominently features various shooting locations. Robin’s bohemian home is a converted airplane hangar filled with colorful kites and has a garden decorated with garlands and wind chimes. While the interior was filmed in a studio, the exteriors of the garden and the parked aircrafts on the runway were shot around the airplane graveyard in the Mojave desert in California. The harsh industrial reality to which Robin returns was filmed in Cologne, Germany, while the surreal setting of Berlin’s airport Tempelhof served as humanity’s last bastion of a flawless dream.
Robin Wright’s emotional performance aside, it is Harvey Keitel’s phenomenal portrayal of the acting agent Al, that easily dominates all scenes he steps in on. He gave his life to an industry, which he loves and simultaneously despises from deep within. Keitel’s face lights up as Al remembers his early days in the business, and hardens to rock as he denounces the dictatorship of the studios. His body was drained from all energy and remains a lump begging the love of his life to give up her dreams.
The film negotiates plenty definitions of freedom and free will – from Robin’s gift of choice, to Miramount’s era of freedom, in which the strict separation of physical world allows the mind to roam free as a bird. But all it takes for this idea to crumble is an individual mind holding on to its past – elevating community and encounters above individuality and imagination, Robin reveals the dystopia within.
Like a genius on an acid trip, Folman dashes through a colorful world, so full of messages and references, that by the time the credits roll we struggle to make meaning of all details. The sheer vastness of visual impressions is overwhelming. The Congress is a race through a world, that we want to see over and over again!