There's a scene at the end of Ari Folman's 2008 film Waltz with Bashir in which, after almost ninety minutes of animated memories from the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war, the audience is suddenly treated to live-action news footage from the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. While the political subtext of Waltz with Bashir has been the subject of much debate, there can be little argument, I think, about Folman's intentions behind the switch from animation to live action at the end of the film: the animated illustrations of the Israeli soldiers' memories were highly subjective, but the live-action footage was meant to remind the audience that the Sabra and Shatila massacre was very much a real event.
In Folman's latest film The Congress, a very loose adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, the transition between live action and animation and the commentary it makes about subjective and objective realities is the main point. The film moves back and forth between the two modes of filmmaking, examining how one becomes closer to the other, and asking which one of them better reflects the world we live in. Abandoning the immediate political subtext of Waltz with Bashir, Folman's work on The Congress is more of a fascinating exercise in cinematic philosophy.
The film stars Robin Wright as an actress of the same name, with a similar filmography (the film refers to her roles in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump) but a different biography—Robin Wright of The Congress has never become the star she could have been, abandoning promising roles to take care of her ailing son. Just when it seems that Wright's career is dead, her agent (Harvey Keitel) offers her the chance to become a star again—now as a digital character based on her likeness, which the studio can use for whatever role it wants, without Wright's permission, and in return for Wright's consent not to appear in any film again. In her negotiations with the studio, Wright manages to bring her absence from the screen down to twenty years. Twenty years after signing the contract, Wright journeys to "The Congress," an event organized by the studio and aimed at fitting her image to the new breed of popular entertainment—drug-induced hallucinations.
The film begins in live action, as Wright debates whether or not to become a studio's digital property. This is the weakest part of the film, featuring poorly written dialogue (characters give speeches instead of talking to each other) and a heavy-handed handling of Wright's domestic problems. In addition, the talking-heads approach in the first part of the film feels monotonous, and while a similar look (in animation, rather than live action) worked well for the documentary approach of Waltz with Bashir, it feels very ineffective in the professional/family drama of The Congress's first half. Only towards the end of this part of the film does it begin to realize its potential, in a beautifully touching scene in which Wright's agent guides her through the digitizing process. Not coincidentally, this is the first scene in which the film's use of special effects becomes noticeable, and it serves as an appropriate gateway to the second part of the film.
This part presents the futuristic existence of the world's population—almost all of it under the influence of hallucinatory drugs—as an animated environment filled with chaotic surroundings subject to constant changes and characters of different designs. It is here that Folman's film begins to resemble its literary source: though he has substituted Ijon Tichy, the protagonist of The Futurological Congress, with the actress character of Wright, the animated look of liquid, flexible reality that each person can design according to his or her wishes artfully captures the atmosphere of Lem's novel. The colorful mixture of different architectural styles, filled with references to pop culture icons, brings to mind a large variety of animated influences, from Max Fleischer's jazzy Betty Boop cartoons (an admitted source of inspiration for the film), to Robert Zemeckis's blockbuster Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to the late Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Each of these works commented in its own way about the changing nature of popular entertainment through the animation of an actress's character, whose career and life are constantly manipulated by a male-oriented environment.
The Congress takes this concept a step further than all those films, asking what happens when the manipulation of this character becomes the domain of not a single oppressive studio, but of the entire population. What happens when the illusions previously provided by the entertainment industry stop being exclusive to this industry, and people can design them according to their own will? It's a frightening concept—and the visuals with which Folman and his team of animators illustrate it make it very scary—but as the film progresses, moving back to live action and then back to animation, the answer to the question of whether the real world is better than the world of drug fantasies becomes less clear.
It is this complexity that makes The Congress—if one overlooks its weak opening—a masterpiece of science fiction and a true cinematic achievement. As in Waltz with Bashir, it affirms Folman's position as one of the most innovative filmmakers working today.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.