Ari Folman’s (‘Waltz with Bashir’) new film opened the Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes, putting the audience on a great little trip, creating animated question marks over everyone’s head and winning an enthusiastic standing ovation which lasted ten minutes!
Folman returns to Cannes after five years with something very different from ‘Waltz with Bashir’. This time, Folman had no intention of making a literal, realistic animation movie. His new feature, ‘The Congress’ is political, deeply philosophical, and at the same time, surrealist sci-fi drama. Its animated parts remind you of Terry Gilliam or David Lynch, but if they were directing Looney Tunes on acid!
The film is divided into three parts (the beginning and ending are live action, while the middle part is animated) and is loosely based the novel ‘The Futurological Congress’ by Stanislaw Lem. It stars Robin Wright (Folman wrote the character specifically for her to play), a 45 year-old Hollywood actress and mother of a teenage girl and a young boy with a vivid imagination, which suffers from a debilitating disease that is slowly impairing his vision and hearing. Her agent, played by Harvey Keitel, offers her one last career option: the times are changing and so are the ways things are done,. A film studio would like to scan and digitize every possible expression, with the intention of making movies in the future using her digital presence. The studio woul be in complete control of her likeness. If she agreed, she would be able to live comfortably for days, but not as an actress. The actress in her would belong to them.
All the argumentation, Robin Wright’s philosophical resistance and the presentation of her allegorical reality, with her child flying kites next to an airport patrolled by the military, uninterrupted, is live action and the most easily accessible part of the film.
After Robin Wright gives in and signs, the viewer is transported twenty years into the future, to a place where people (not just actors) are allowed to choose the worlds they inhabit. Whether it is a real one of naturalist rebels or a scanned, digital one. If they opt for the latter, they are free to enter an existence where by inhaling chemical formulas they could transport themselves into their dream-worlds: into their constructed selves, an animated sci-fi universe where they could be Elvis, or Little Red Riding Hood, Picasso, or a female character from one of his paintings.
Robin Wright passes the border for the first time at the age of 65, to attend ‘The Congress’, a celebratory symposium, which wants to show the world how far science has progressed and what lies in store (people will become flavors that others will be able to drink in cocktails). But during her stay in this surrealist universe, the rebels raid the place and dump all of the chemicals into the atmosphere, effectively trapping Robin Wright in their world. How will she get back to her alternate reality and her children? The third, live action part of the film may even remind you of ‘Children of Men’.
Is this a critique of the evolution of the cinematic technology? An intense political drama which cautions us against the de-valuing of humans in the digital age? Is it both?
Folman may be cramming and jamming, trying to say too much in the length of a single film, but this is often tricky for artists. You may feel that this experimental cinematic hybrid never fully makes sense mind wholeheartedly, but perhaps you won’t care. His dive into this virtual world, where even one’s ruminations are documented, is so courageous and unflinching you can’t help but want to congratulate him! Even more so because you realize that in our day and age, a new age/hippy perspective, for the necessity of truth in everything, in images and their meanings, seems almost necessary.