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Fantastic Planets: The Congress and its ancestors

This is a guest essay from David Turpin. Read his previous contributions here.

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The Congress 1

August 15 sees the belated cinema release of The Congress, the extraordinary fourth feature film by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman. The Congress follows his widely celebrated 2008 feature Waltz with Bashir, and like that earlier film, it makes striking use of animated imagery. While Waltz with Bashir had the unique distinction of being an “animated documentary”, dealing with the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 and its aftermath, The Congress is arguably harder to define. Part Hollywood satire, part science fiction epic, and bearing a somewhat tenuous connection to a novel by “Solaris” author Stanisław Lem, The Congress features a never-better Robin Wright playing an actress (also named Robin Wright), who submits to being “sampled” and transformed into a virtual performer, only for her life to be affected in unforeseen ways that prompt the film’s startling transition, about 40 minutes in, from glassy live-action to hallucinatory animation. If Waltz with Bashir used animation to mimic the veil of distance we experience from horrific world events (and our own complicity in them) only to yank it away with a final, jarring switch to actual footage of the massacre in Beirut, The Congress works in a different but related direction, exploring how mediated images lead us on a slow drift away from the reality of experience, including our experience of ourselves. If you’ve ever pointed yourself out in a photograph using the third person, The Congress is the film for you.

The Congress is worth seeing at least once for Wright’s performance – in both corporeal and animated form – as well as for its ravishing visuals. As well as that, it serves as a timely reminder that the history of two-dimensional animation is more diverse than the standard Disney-Anime dichotomy permits. Specifically, the film – which was animated by a French company – evokes a number of French masterpieces, including Paul Grimault and Jacques Prévert’s Le Roi et l’Oiseau and three remarkable science fiction animated features made by René Laloux. The aesthetic of The Congress visualises the future in startling colours and rounded edges that blur the organic and the mechanical (take, for instance, the achingly beautiful sight of airplanes that navigate the pink sky in fluid, wave-like movements), recalling the work of French comic books artists Jean-Claude Forest (Barbarella) and Jean Giraud (better known as Mœbius). Mœbius, who worked with Alejandro Jodorowsky on the latter’s unrealised film of Dune, reportedly turned down an opportunity to work on Blade Runner to collaborate with René Laloux instead, on the 1982 film Les Maîtres du Temps (Time Masters). This film, along with its 1973 predecessor La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) and its 1988 successor Gandahar (US title: Light Years), exerts a powerful influence on The Congress.

La Planete Sauvage

A still from “La Planete Sauvage”

Although all three Laloux features have recently been given handsome DVD reissues as part of Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” series, he continues to be remembered primarily for La Planete Sauvage. A breathtakingly realised fantasy set on a distant planet occupied by a towering blue-skinned intelligentsia (the Draags) and an atavistic humanoid race (the Oms), La Planete Sauvage has long been enjoyed by a certain kind of audience as a hymn to the transcendent properties of hallucinogens (Draags = “Drugs”, Oms = “Hommes”). Certainly, some of the film’s most striking moments come in its “meditation” scenes, in which the Draags, having inhaled a vaporous substance, mentally animate eroticised headless statues. However, such a reading tends to ignore the disturbing turn of the film’s narrative, in which, after discovering that the Oms have gained access to their secret knowledge, the Draags launch a distinctly un-mellow genocidal campaign against them, complete with gassings. In these scenes, La Planete Sauvage seems to explore the ways in which retreat into hermetic, primarily visual, pleasure can numb us to human suffering – a phenomenon suggested in the closing minutes of Waltz with Bashir and again in The Congress, when “Robin Wright” emerges from the animated world into a devastated live-action terrain occupied by sleepwalking humans whose lived experience consists only of subsistence and hallucination.

The gorgeously tactile, shaded animation of La Planete Sauvage was replaced in Laloux’s later features by a more comic-book style that is echoed in The Congress. Les Maîtres du Temps is perhaps Laloux’s least effective film – its game stab at Saturday morning thrills ultimately proving irreconcilable with its more intellectual persuasion, despite an unexpectedly moving bittersweet conclusion. It does, however, offer myriad incidental pleasures, not least a number of extraordinary visuals based on multiples – a lake filled with enormous indigo flowers, a horde of identical giant hornets advancing on a small child. This fascination with the disappearance of individuality into a sea of multiples is evident in The Congress (notably when an animated Wright checks into a hotel that already houses several more “Robin Wrights”), and is most clearly expressed by Laloux in his final feature film, Gandahar.

A still from "Gandahar"

A still from “Gandahar”

Made in collaboration with designer Philippe Caza, Gandahar is another science fiction piece, this time dealing with a Utopian society run by an extremely French bare-breasted matriarchy which comes under threat from a malevolent brain that also looks suspiciously like a gigantic glans. Effectively combining the hypnotic surrealism of La Planete Sauvage with the adventure narrative of Les Maîtres du Temps, Gandahar features scores of perfect but undifferentiated robotic beings, pitted against a band of grotesque but benevolent mutants, whose individuation has been taken to the furthest possible extreme (see the headless figure with a giant face occupying his torso). In so doing, the film takes full advantage of the possibilities of two dimensional art to produce standardisation (as in the print) and wild divergence (as in the freehand drawing), and applies them to a science fiction narrative that dramatises their opposition.

Gandahar was released in the U.S. by noted film butcher Harvey Weinstein, who retitled it Light Years and censoriously covered up Ambisextra, Gandahar’s imperiously topless matriarch, on the poster art. However, the troubled history of Gandahar, and indeed all Laloux’s features, pales in comparison to that of another masterpiece of French animation, Le Roi et l’Oisseau, begun in 1948 but not released until 1980. Directed by Paul Grimault and written by Jacques Prévert, this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep” was the subject of rights grapples throughout its extended gestation, and was even released in bastardised form in 1952 before Grimault regained rights to his work and completed it himself. Recently reissued on DVD and for a limited cinema release, the film is striking for its combination of fairy tale narrative with satire and parody, particularly of European Fascism. The remarkable world of the film, with its automated castle and subterranean underclass, is recalled throughout The Congress, in which the animated Robin Wright journeys through an environment that recalls that of Grimault’s film in its combination of fastidious detail and the apparently arbitrary. Indeed, the diabolical studio head played by Danny Huston in the opening scenes of The Congress (and his animated alternate in the animated sections) bears a strong resemblance to the king of Le Roi et l’Oisseau who, in his obsessive pursuit of a shepherdess who has escaped from a painting, betrays a similar preoccupation with owning a woman by reducing her to an image.

The Congress has met with a fairly muted reception, partly out of resistance to its at-times unwieldy structure, but mostly, I suspect, because it never approaches the visceral impact of Waltz with Bashir. This is understandable, but it does a disservice to both films. The impact of Waltz with Bashir comes from its singularity – it stands alone as something unprecedented and unrepeatable. The Congress is at once subtler and more grandiose. If Waltz with Bashir shocks its audience awake, The Congress lulls them through successive dream states – from the dream icon of the film star to the dream world of animation into the realm of unconsciousness. In the end, it’s quite difficult to determine what, if anything, The Congress “means”. It has however left me with seven or eight indelible sights that continue to reverberate with me six months after I first saw it. In our world – which is at least as dislocated, fragmented and hallucinatory as that of The Congress – that’s more than enough to forgive its lacunae. Laloux himself wrote that “Movies today show more and more. It’s paranoid dictator cinema. What we need is schizophrenic cinema”. The Congress meets that need.

The Congress

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David Turpin is a writer and musician (as The Late David Turpin). His web-site is Read his previous contributions here.