The only thing I’m sure about post-my viewing of chick flick woman’s film film-about-women-and-their-lives The Congress at my local arthouse cinema was that The Lady From Shanghai looks like a damned travesty. Not only is it one of those old, slow, black and white jobs I resented studying during my undergraduate, in which Orson Welles walks around being portly and grumpy while earning more than the majority of surgeons, but as this trailer ran and I waited for the definitely-awesome-feminist-epic The Congress to start, the eponymous and conspicuously caucasian Lady in question, Rita Hayworth, said literally nothing, AND was slapped three times.
Three! And they’re all at once, so one was a backhand. It was really gross. Old, conventional films suck. Yay for the breaking of new barriers in genre, narrative and equality!
Focusing on my sweary outburst at the Watershed following the Lady From Shanghai trailer allows me to ignore my ambivalence and disappointment regarding The Congress, about whose representation of the success of women in the film industry I am far more unsure. I was totally promised an aging-woman-is-unacceptable-so-they-clone-and-utilise-her-to-make-money-i.e.-LITERAL-OBJECTIFICATION-and-subsequent-feminist-win narrative, but was given only the first half of it.
As you can tell from my serene, offhand use of punctuation, The Congress had seemed a feminist and neoclassic industrial critique; deeply layered, achingly painful and consistently toeing the line between real and surreal, the first act was a near perfect imagining of the ever-changing yet ever-thus entertainment industries, the people who populate them, and their possible futures, through the eyes of the human, mother, and actress Robin Wright (played by actual human, mother and actress Robin Wright, who is far better respected and hopefully happier than the film’s Robin Wright, who is consistently referred to as ‘Robin Wright’, being that she is a thing rather than a person, of course.) The pain of Robin Wright’s difficult parenthood and exploitation by her agent perfectly balances the very overt satire of the film’s own industry, and sets up a story which could, at this point, potentially either excel or eat itself.
The film has incredible, rich and relevant themes. Pathways I couldn’t wait to travel to find out how Robin Wright (and her various manifestations) would reach their end point on The Journey. Unfortunately those many substantial themes (industrial oppression and exploitation, human agency, parenthood, the duplicity and fragility of relationships, woman as object, man as villain, etc.) become in-credible, and almost redundant in the second act amongst the gurning flying-fish, horizon-spanning rainbow-streaked roads, and butler-robots that constitute ‘The Animated Zone.’ There seems to be no fathomable purpose for the film’s ‘animated zone’, other than director Ari Folman’s notoriety for expert use of animation in his previous genre-mixing documentary Waltz With Bashir, and the fact that it allows for experimentation with reality and meaning, and the audience’s expectations (and their time.)
Look, I appreciate genre-bending cultural hybridity as much as the next quasi-intellectual former arts student who reviews films in their spare time (read: lonesome hipster wannabe), if only for the fact that they provide refreshment and, hopefully, challenging stories and ideas. But 45 minutes in, as an intertitle informs us that it’s ’20 Years Later’ and Robin Wright literally drives down the road from the ‘old world’ into the ‘new’ one, the sudden diversion from dystopian thriller to indecipherable blend of Mario Kart and The Justin Bieber Show is, rather than the very awesome product it ought to be, kinda distracting.
Once in the inexplicable land known as both the Animated Zone and Abrahamia (and act two), the narrative is only loosely relevant, now an ambiguous stream-of-consciousness venture relying on random phrases and (undeniably beautiful) animation to create connections and meaning. The only lynchpin holding this together is Wright, who we’ve become attached to, but who is then bumped from the position of protagonist to femme fatale, rendering a film about protagonist Robin Wright being cloned and owned into a confused literal manifestation of that with little reprieve.
So. Wright goes to Abrahamia to see Jeff, the executive who organised her cloning and who is now a police officer, in the big hotel-ship Miramount (the future manifestation of Miramount Studios and now a corporation, Miramount Nagasaki, which bottles small vials of chemicals allowing people’s likenesses in to be consumed.) Wright addresses an audience of Miramount Nagasaki workers who have come to see her speak, and shouts that she is their “prophet of doom.” An assassin initially guns for her but kills the emcee of the proceedings, then blows up the building. Dylan, the love interest, appears and becomes the agent of the story, dragging Wright around to show us the trippy scenery, and partially explaining his life to us, but not really what’s going on or why we should care. Then Wright travels about in time to little purpose, then they have sex in front of a massive fireball, and then, thankfully, Dylan gives her the means to get out of the Animated Zone. The barriers to a clear narrative purpose distract us from any of the original themes – which by then are only felt via snapshots of thematic coherence in phrases:
“Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”
“Don’t give up. Don’t fall asleep…”
“I’ll sign! Just stop fucking with my head…”
And with these resonances, I’m wondering whether, in fact, the film is a piece of Lynchian genius, from which we are actually poorly prepared for by the traditional setup of act one… It made me think of Mulholland Drive – you never really know what’s going on, though you are kept fascinated by the drip of tiny, frustrating clues. One of the biggest keys came in the form of Dylan’s animated-bull-man sequence. Miramount Nagasaki’s chemical substance allows you to create yourself in whatever animated likeness you want – Dylan imagines himself as a bull; he is shown stampeding a young girl, whom he throws onto his back and then up into the stars, where she evaporates. What seems to be a referral to aggressive but ultimately benign masculinity ends with the phrase “it’s about feeling…” If The Congress is about simply feeling the feels of this strange potential virtual world of ‘the future’ in which little makes sense, and we are so detached from ‘reality’ that we can’t even work ourselves out, then it could be argued that it is going someway to a radical reflection of the current status and trajectory of the dynamics of western public and private life.
Particular phrases and archetypal characters did resonate with some very general concepts about love, pain, agency etc., but without the robust story within which to fully brew those themes, they remained as abstract as they are. I felt them, but they did not make any more sense to me than they do at work in my own life, only in my own life I tend not to wonder why Tom Cruise has just appeared or Michael Jackson is serving me dinner. Octopuses also do not talk, in the main.
Ultimately, The Congress seems to be two films; the long-ish first act containing the power play between Robin Wright and the industry was fantastic, and felt frustratingly unfinished. As soon as it became an addled exploration into the psyche of someone under the influence of an unknown drug, in an uncertain and abstract representation of a place, with unrecognisable characters, it lost me. I spent more time trying to decipher what and why than feeling and understanding them. But I still felt enough of it that I wanted it to work.
Saying all this, I did see the film on a day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I dashed out of the cinema, and straight into the loos for a right old cry – the catharsis was far greater than that of any other film I have seen lately, as I had expected. For its lack of grip on a narrative, its pinballing themes and creation of meaning was only frustrating in the shadow of how fascinating I feel it should have been considering the rich emotion and desperation that were consistently. If the message of the film is to pay more attention to ourselves, our lives, and what is ‘real’ for us – our relationships, our values, our agency – all of that meaning was there, we just need to work harder (or less hard?) to make sense of it. I just don’t think that the Yellow SubmaTitanic was the ship to float these ideas on; it would have worked better had it been a predictable Hero’s Journey, minus all the rainbows and flying and maypole dancing and poppers that turned people into White Jesus and British Ronald Reagan (even B-Ro could not redeem this for me.)
The film made me feel weaker rather than stronger in my understanding of its consciousness about consciousness, in refusing to shape its transmission of meaning and values. As Kermode has noted (most famously regarding Blue Velvet, of which a repeat watching transformed his cynical experience to one of being “vibrantly thrilled”) sometimes you need to watch a film twice or more to fully absorb and ‘get’ it. I will likely do this – but I wouldn’t pay to see it again. The Congress made me feel, but what it made me feel was a bit angry, confused, and sad.