The Congress – Ari Folman
In his film adaptation of Stanisław Lem's Kongres futurologiczny (The Futurological Congress), the creator of Waltz with Bashir focuses on its grim vision of future rather than on the narrative. Despite its impressive scale of The Congress and great performances by actors, the film remains an unfulfilled promise.
Cinema is entering an era in which actors will be redundant – thanks to scanners, film producers can create their digital avatars, which will be able to copy the mimics and movements of live persons. One of the film's stars who receives the offer of being scanned is Robin Wright (played by… Robin Wright). The forty-three year old actor signs her last contract, and by the same token puts herself in the hands of the animators and producers. From now on, for the next twenty years she will be substituted by a computer programme generated by the film animators.
A new reading of Lem
Stanisław Lem has not been so lucky with film adaptations. They were made either by science fiction lovers who did not appreciate the intellectual assets of his prose hiding behind the facade of convention, or philosophising filmmakers who sacrifice the plot and vision for the sake of reflection.
Unfortunately, that is also the case with Folman's The Congress. The author of the outstanding Waltz with Bashir indulges in the visually elaborate picture, but forgets about the principles of dramaturgy, while the host of pop-philosophical threads makes The Congress drown in pretentiousness. Folman intertwines a classical film narrative with animated sequences representing the imagination of the main protagonist. The visions that make up Folman's universe, do not, however, build up to a coherent story.
In the classically filmed, acted out part of The Congress, the motif of a lonely mother struggling with a progressing illness of her son is touching, while the agent's (Harvey Keitel) monologue during the scanning process is the film's best scene. When Ari Folman applies the classic cinema language, the film's machinery picks up the pace. The problem lays in the fact that as soon as it gains some speed, the director abandons realistic aesthetics and transports us to an animated anti-utopia.
Lem in the land of gods
Folman's film is based on an intellectual paradox: it subscribes to the convention of anti-utopia and simultaneously mocks it. This should not come as a surprise, as Folman films Lem's Kongres futurologiczny, a short story which offers a humorous commentary on literary anti-utopias.
The Israeli artist accuses pop culture and at the same time pays a tribute to it. He ridicules the icons of international cinema, introducing such figures as Tom Cruise, who bares his teeth in a fake grin, or Clint Eastwood clad in scruffy rags from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These are some of the people encountered by Robin Wright during her narcotic journey across her own subconscious. Her entire expedition, which brings to mind Dante's Divine Comedy, resembles a walk among gods of pantheons. Michael Jackson waits on the Egyptian god Amun-Re, Marilyn Monroe meets Zeus, and Jesus – Ronald Reagan.
In The Congress, popular culture takes over the role of religion as the “opium for the people.” The escape from reality leads to a complete renunciation of humanity understood as a freedom to choose one's own fate. While hatching this grim vision, Folman also gives us a wink. It is not a coincidence that its most important quotation (which is used on several occasions in the film) is taken from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, in which the American master scorned the convention of anti-utopia and the Cold War fright on which his contemporaries preyed. Folman also seems to mock the dark fantasies he shows on the screen.
Michał Englert's cinematography
Folman introduces a plethora of literary and cinematic solutions, thus presenting the viewers with an almost hour-long intellectual charade. The problem lies in the fact that at the end of the day, we cannot expect anything more than the satisfaction from the solved riddles, as between the psychological drama which is signalled in the first scenes, and the final vision of the world on the verge of decline, the film is narratively empty.
The Congress is at its best when its authors give a voice to the psychological tale about a woman faced with a life choice. It is the first sequences that give the film its pace. This is largely Michał Englert's merit. The Polish cinematographer is great at adjusting to the temperature and dynamics of the film's events – one time, he leaves a space for his protagonists and patiently observes them from a distance, and another, his camera comes to live and follows the characters.
Folman believes in the power of the image and his actors' performances. He does not force dynamic editing, which one could expect in a science-fiction production, and allows for a chemistry of emotional connections, instead of the plot, to dominate on the screen. And rightly so, as the actors are an undeniable advantage of this film. The statuesque and beautiful Robin Wright as a woman at a life's turning point is very convincing, while Danny Houston takes full advantage of his demonic specialisation. They are only outshined by Harvey Keitel. In a few short scenes, the American actor demonstrates a true screen charisma which attracts the audience's attention like a magnet.
Stanisław Lem confessed at the age of eighty: “It would be enough for me if someone created one good movie based on my book.” He wasn't happy with Tarkovsky's Solaris, nor – and even less so – with the rather unsuccessful Polish adaptations or Steven Soderbergh's American hit. One might suspect that The Congress would not be his dream film either. Ari Folman created a work that is internally cracked, as its narrative plot gives way to pop philosophy.
The film opened in Polish theatres on 13th September, 2013. It premiered in Germany on the day before.
The Congress, Belgium, France, Luxemburg, Germany, Poland, Israel 2013. Directed by Ari Folman, Screenplay: Ari Folman based on Kongres futurologiczny (The Futurological Congres) by Stanisław Lem, Cinematography: Michał Englert, Score: Max Richter, Editing: Feler Nili, Scenography: David Polonsky. Cast: Robin Wright, Harley Keitel, Danny Houston, Kodi Smit-McPhee , Paul Giamatti. Distribution: Gutek Film.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 26th August 2013, transl. Ania Micińska, November 2015Bartosz Staszczyszyn