In filming Lem's Kongres futurologiczny / The Futurological Congress, director Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) focuses more on a grim vision of the future than on the story. The Congress dazzles with its grandiosity and acting, though it remains an unfulfilled promise.
Robin Wright in The Congress directed by Ari Folmana, photo: Gutek Film.
Cinema is entering an age in which actors are no longer necessary – thanks to scanners it is possible to create their computer avatars that can mimic the facial expressions and body language of living people. One of the stars who is given this type of scanning proposal is Robin Wright (played by... Robin Wright). The 43-year-old actress signs her last contract and gives herself over to producers and animators. For the next 20 years she appears on the silver screen as a computer-generated animation...
Lem read anew
Stanisław Lem never really had luck as far as film adaptations of his books were concerned. They were often done by sci-fi lovers who couldn’t see the intellectual value of his prose underneath the costume of convention, or movie philosophers who sacrificed action and vision at the altar of contemplation.
Folman's The Congress has unfortunate similarities. The director of the excellent Waltz with Bashir enjoys the opulent animated visions so much that he forgets the ABCs of drama, drowning scores of pop-philosophical motifs in pretentiousness. Folman intertwines classical film plots with animated scenes that are set in the imagination of the protagonist. However, the visions that build Folman's universe do not form a coherent story.
Robin Wright and Paul Giamatti in The Congress directed by Ariego Folmana, photo: Gutek Film.
In the traditionally filmed part of The Congress, the motif of the single mother who struggles with her son's progressing sickness dominates the scene. The monologue by her agent (Harvey Keitel) during scanning is probably the best moment of the film. As long as Folman sticks to the classical cinema language, the movie machinery picks up momentum. The problem lays in the fact that the director abandons realism to take audiences to the animated distopia.
With Lem among the gods
Folman's movie is based on an intellectual paradox – it both presents itself as part of the anti-utopian genre and mocks it. This is not a surprise since Lem's The Futurological Congress is a humorous commentary to literary distopias.
The Israeli artist both indicts pop-culture and praises it. He mocks icons of cinema; showing Tom Cruise with his teeth in a fake smile and Clint Eastwood dressed in dirty rags from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Robin Wright meets these characters during the psychedelic trip of her subconscious. The whole escapade resembles Dante's The Divine Comedy and takes viewers on a walk among deities of different pantheons. Michael Jackson waits tables for Pharaoh Amon-Ra, Marilyn Monroe meets Zeus and Jesus meets Ronald Regan.
Robin Wright in The Congress directed by Ariego Folmana, photo: Gutek Film.
In The Congress, pop culture takes on the role of religion as “the opium for the masses”. The escape from reality leads to a complete rejection of one's humanity; here understood as the freedom of choice. While presenting such a gloomy vision, Folman also winks at us. It is no accident that the most important quote, repeated on many occasions through the film, comes from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. This film features the master director scoffing at the distopian literary conventions and cold-war fears that so often fed his contemporaries. In a similar light, Folman seems to be mocking the dark fantasies he shows on screen.
Movie shot by Michał Englert
Folman multiplies literary and cinematic references and gives his viewers an intellectual charade. But by the end, viewers realise that nothing more awaits them other than the satisfaction of solving the riddles. This is unfulfilling because between the psychological drama, signalled during the first takes of the movie, and the presentation of the finale as a vision of a world at the edge of its fall, there is an enormous void in the plot.
Congress is at its best when the creators highlight the psychological story of a woman facing an important life choice. These first scenes give the movie its momentum and partial credits go to cimematographer Michał Englert for this. The Polish DP adjusts well to the changing dynamics and “temperature” of the action. Some moments feature his perspective of the characters from afar followed by greater activity and a closing in to follow them.
Folman believes in the strength of his images and his characters. He refrains from using the dynamic editing one would expect from science-fiction and instead makes room for chemistry from emotional connections. This initiative becomes legitimated through the actors’ performances, as they are one of the strongest aspects of this movie. The sculpted Robin Wright is beautiful and convincing as a woman at a turning point in her life, and Danny Houston uses his demonic charisma to the fullest. But both of them are outshone by Harvey Keitel. The actor, who appears in a few short scenes, displays on-screen charisma that is magnetic and alluring.
The 80-year-old Stanisław Lem confessed once, “It would be enough if one good film were made after my books”. He was not satisfied with Tarkovsky's Solaris, and Polish adaptations would just continue to disappoint. When even the hit by Steven Soderbergh didn’t meet his wishes, it could be safe to could assume that Congress would do the same. The letdown is due to the fact that Folman created a work that was internally broken where he substituted the story for pop-philosophy.
The film will premiere in Poland on the 13th of September, and opens in Germany the day before.
- The Congress: Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, Israel in 2013.
- Director: Ari Folman, Script: Ari Folman (based on Kongres futurologiczny by Stanisław Lem) Camera: Michał Englert, Music: Max Richter, Editing: Feler Nili, Scenography: David Polonsky. Starring: Robin Wright, Harley Keitel, Danny Houston, Kodi Smit-McPhee , Paul Giamatti. Distribution: Gutek Film.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 26/08/2013