The Congress

The Congress ★★★½

There's a monologue at the end of act one of The Congress, Ari Folman's follow-up to the justly lauded Waltz With Bashir that I think is as good as any speech ever written for the cinema. It comes when Robin Wright, playing "Robin Wright", an ageing actress with a haphazard career and family life, has agreed to let herself be scanned by Miramount Studios. The scanning process will create a permanently youthful onscreen avatar of Wright, which the studio can then put to work in the kind of sexy-action-girl roles the real-life Wright has avoided.

Anyway, Wright is led into the scanning chamber, which resembles the sort of thing Buckminster Fuller might have come up with had he embraced the disco era. She is asked to contribute emotions that can be used on Miramount's virtual Robin, but her performance is lacking. She is anxious about her contract, which stipulates that she cannot act for twenty years, lest she taint the shiny perfection of her digital self with the reality of a human being getting older. At which point the man who introduced her to the contract, her agent (Harvey Keitel) jumps in with a staggering extended speech about his friendship with a misfit boy in the Bronx when he was a child. It goes in all sorts of directions, some charming, some disturbing, and ends up looping back into the main plot in a wholly unexpected way. And it marks the point at which neither Keitel nor Wright can go back on their pact with the studio.

The Congress is too long, it ignores about six valid potential endings, and it is burdened with a subplot about Wright's disabled, kite-flying son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) which never becomes as tearjerking or as metaphorically rich as Folman wants it to be. But it is garlanded with moments like the one I've described above which are richer and more thought-provoking than many films which are objectively better.

Obviously, the world it describes is in many ways already here, as anyone who's read this New Yorker piece about actor scanning will know. But it's also with us in less dramatic, less hi-tech ways, as the film keeps making clear. The studio's reptilian boss (Danny Huston) challenges Wright's objections to the scanning plot by asking if she gets permission to use the image of people she has sexual fantasies about, and the later, animated stages of the film are replete with cartoon images of iconic figures like Frida Kahlo, Muhammad Ali, Pablo Picasso and David Bowie. Did Folman get permission to use all these likenesses? Surely not - its his right as an artist to comment on a celebrity's public image. But how do we divide the image of Ali - a man famous for sticking to his beliefs and personality in the face of heavy opposition - from the real person?

In the run-up to The Congress's UK release Folman was asked by The Big Issue to talk about the experience of being an Israeli director promoting his work at a time when Israel is facing widespread international criticism. As anyone who's seen Waltz With Bashir will know, Folman is hardly a Likudnik, but he was critical of the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement for hitting artists harder than their government. Now that the Israeli left are in disarray, he noted, artists are the most prominent voices for peace in Israel.

But he also said that he was disappointed by the failure of Waltz With Bashir to open up any lasting dialogue on the misdeeds of the IDF in his home country. Buried under the surface of The Congress is a lurking anxiety about the value of art. It's a science-fiction film whose characters constantly denigrate science fiction as an art form, and in the case of the tosh the virtual Wright ends up starring in, they've got a point. But then they end up living in a science fiction dystopia, lifted from a novel by the great Stanisław Lem (The Futurological Congress).

Would this world have turned out differently had they listened to the genre, or are we just programmed to forget warnings? Time and time again in the film the Nazis and the Holocaust are invoked, but always in an apolitical context - Wright is implored to play in a "Holocaust movie" to get her career back on track, and when it is debated whether she should be a Nazi or a Jew someone suggests she could be a collaborator. That's talent, they note. If the epicentre of moral evil that is the Holocaust no longer means anything - if the words "Nazi" and "Jew" are just available to anyone who wants to construct an argument about anything - what makes us think our own identities are so precious and valid? Why should our precious identities be saved from the cultural whirlpool of meaningless signs, signifiers, ideologies and data that our society now represents?

The Congress is a bit ragged, but any film that can raise questions like that must be seen.

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