Saw The Congress tonight, a film by Ari Folman, loosely based on one of my favorite books, The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem.

It’s an amazing book; the film starts slowly (and at first seems to have nothing to do with the book)– I was dubious during the first hour– but then it goes insane. In a good, Lemian way.

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The first part of the movie is set in the near future. A middle-aged actress, Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, is approached with what she’s told will be her last film opportunity ever. The studio wants to scan her once, to turn her into a digital character… after that, they have no further need of her, and in fact she’ll be forbidden to act. It’s not spelled out what she’ll get in return, but apparently she’s desperate for cash to take care of her son (who’s going deaf and blind), so she signs the contract.

All this is presented slowly and didactically, and even when the sf elements come in– the actual scanning– it’s not satisfying. They basically want her to emote for a few hours while being photographed… weirdly, there are flashing lights making it seem like they’re taking still pictures. It’s well acted, and yet makes little sense: how could even a couple hours of performance suffice for generating decades of movies?  In the scene she goes from laughter to tears… but what about every other emotion?  Fear, disgust, anger, orgasm? It’d frankly have made more sense if they said they were scanning her brainwaves or something.

Then, we skip forward 20 years, and Wright attends a “Futurist Congress” associated with her studio, which requires taking an ampoule of some drug, which alters her and our perception.  The presentation switches to an animated movie, with a style blending ’20s pipecleaner and ’60s psychedelic animation.  The film suddenly becomes visually inventive, half playful, half nightmarish, and the plot starts to get weird as well.

This half of the film is also, surprisingly, a recognizable adaptation of Lem’s novel, with the substitution of Wright for Lem’s astronaut hero Ijon Tichy. The studio, tired of mere digitization, has switched to powerful customized hallucinogens that reshape reality.  But then things go wrong– there is some kind of rebellion– Wright is rescued by the man who was responsible for animating her, and fell in love with her.  But he can only take her to the underground sewer which the hotel managers have escaped to, with inflatable chairs and their secretaries. And with the chemicals in the air intensifiying, it’s increasingly unclear whether she’s experiencing rescues or drug-induced nightmares.

She’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in an even stranger future– a world entirely composed of fantasy. Everyone seems happy, but she can’t adjust, and misses her son.  She seizes the chance to take one more drug, which erases all the effects of the hallucinogens… revealing a shabby brown world, back to live action. Should she stay there, or head back to the comforting fantasy world?

I appreciate high weirdness in art, but it’s all too easy to let it get out of control. Fortunately Forman keeps the story coherent– it’s not just a head trip. He grafts the whole story of Wright, her career, and her family onto Lem’s furious satire. It’s an attempt to give the story a heart, which admittedly the novel lacks.  Tichy reacts to things like we would, serving as bemused spectator and then expressing horror and outrage as he learns how the world really is– but we don’t exactly care about him.  Wright on the other hand is little but emotion; she doesn’t seem to think about anything that’s presented to her.

The book is a tour de force, a whirlwind of grotesqueries and wordplay and ideas taken to wild but logical extremes.  But perhaps it was a little too cool-headed to make a good movie.  So read the book and watch the movie… just be patient for the first 45 minutes or so.

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