A good many years ago, "the future's so bright I gotta wear shades" became a global catchphrase on the back of a sarcastic pop song skewering the idea of a better, brighter future. As technology has moved on and surpassed the imagination of most of us, the push and pull of progress between technophobia and technophilia has been at the heart of many science-fiction tales, whether in the big screen or the printed page. And Israeli writer/director Ari Folman's follow-up to his universally acclaimed Waltz with Bashir dramatises effectively, and disturbingly, that push and pull as it shapes and inflects the course of history into paths not necessarily foreseen.

     This liberal adaptation of the late Polish novelist Stanisław Lem's 1971 novel takes an enormous leap of faith, asking its viewer to jump along into a creative landscape that has little or nothing to do with most conventional contemporary filmmaking. And it does so in such a way as to resemble an ever-shifting, ever-moving soap bubble propelled by the serious thought experiments of classic literary sci-fi. Starting out in a near future (rendered in bright, crisp live action footage) where major film studios are routinely locking up the image rights of major actors, scanning their likenesses and using these digital avatars in cookie-cutter blockbusters, The Congress is about nothing less than the fabric of reality itself, and the way humanity is the single most important key to access its truth.

     At the heart of Mr. Folman's sinuous riff on Mr. Lem's book is "the gift of choice". Actress Robin Wright (playing soulfully and sensitively an alternate version of herself) is bullied by studio executive Jeff Green (a conveniently slimy Danny Huston) into selling her image to Miramount Studios, in exchange for an eternal youth that will prevent her from repeating all the "lousy choices" that sank her once promising career. But when you no longer have the power to choose, when you have abdicated your choice to someone else who may not have your best interests at heart, how can that be any better than (very humanly) regretting the road not taken?

     That is where Mr. Folman is aiming at, as he follows the long arc of Robin's choice to sell her image into its future consequences, twenty years (and beyond) later, on a dystopian Earth peopled by opiated masses, overrun by chemicals promising an eternal limbo of escapist fantasy and hedonism, leaving the growingly devastated real world behind. It's the Matrix by any other name, and Mr. Folman writes its ironically hand-crafted alternate history in deliberately retro animation with a strong debt to 1930s pioneers and Betty Boop creators the Fleischer Brothers and to modern-day assembly-line Japanese anime. He does so while compacting an entire century of pop culture references into a maddeningly delirious, nightmarish psychedelic trip through a "future so bright you have to wear shades", reminding at the same time from the mind-blowing, mind-expanding psychedelics of the countercultural era of the 1960s and 1970s (Mr. Lem's novel, more or less closely followed in the film's second half, was originally published in 1971) and its "don't trust the man" libertarian instincts.

     When The Congress's live action photography is replaced, at the 50-minute mark, by Yoni Goodman's elaborately surreal classic animation, Mr. Folman's film seems to travel behind the lush curtains of David Lynch's "red room" or the Toontown access tunnel in Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It's that same sense of crossing into the other side of the mirror, from a reality that is more or less akin to yours into another that is initially seductive but ultimately a dangerous trap from where they may be no return. In so doing, The Congress becomes a disturbingly resonant but ultimately moving cautionary fable about the times we live in and the slippery slopes lurking out in the darkest corners of our addiction to move forward. After all, "congress" rhymes with "progress". Don't say they didn't warn you.

Israel, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Poland, France, India 2013
123 minutes
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Sami Gayle, Michael Stahl-David, Paul Giamatti
Director/screenwriter Ari Folman; based on the novel The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem; animation director Yoni Goodman; cinematography Michał Englert (colour); music Max Richter; designer David Polonsky; costumes Mandi Line; editor Nili Feller; visual effects Roiy Nitzan; producers Reinhard Brundig, Mr. Folman and Ms. Wright, Bridgit Folman Film Gang and Pandora Film in co-production with Paul Thiltges Distributions, Entre Chien et Loup, Opus Film, ARP Séléction, ARD Degeto, Cinemorphic Sikhya Entertainment, Canal Plus Poland, Silesia Film Fund, RTBF, Belgacom and France 2 Cinéma
Screened February 25th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)


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