‘Manifesto’ is a tricky movie to review because it almost isn’t a movie. It was originally designed as a museum installation piece by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, featuring Cate Blanchett in 13 distinct and bizarre roles. Now it’s being released as a feature film, and while it will hardly please those looking for summertime cinema staples such as narrative or spectacle, it should appeal to those looking for something offbeat and intellectual.
To describe ‘Manifesto’ is to make it sound like a pretentious snooze, which thankfully isn’t the case. Nonetheless, here it is. Cate Blanchett appears as 13 different characters reading out 13 different artistic manifestos – anything from anti-Communist screeds to the Dogme 95 rule sheet is included. Yet these aren’t really roles as much as archetypes. Blanchett portrays a suburban mother discussing the most simplistic and easily accessible artistic forms, to a homeless man screeching to the heavens about the downfall of Capitalism. Each performance is poised and perfect to suit the material. More importantly, they all come with a fine sense of humor. Rosefeldt and Blanchett are acutely aware of the limitations and ambitions of their project. They take the manifestos and meanings seriously, but also recognize the absurdity of the entire production and are more than happy to poke fun at what they’re saying in the moment and what they’re hoping to accomplish with the piece as a whole.
It takes a while for that sense of playfulness to sink in. At first, the project feels almost overwhelming and hopelessly dense in meaning and pretense. Rosefeldt shoots each segment in long takes and through layers of detail. This could be anything from a deliberately fuzzy and overproduced news segment to more abstract combinations of color and movement difficult to pin down. However, once the formula becomes clear, the playful approach to every speech and segment slowly reveals itself. By the time Blanchett breaks down a definition of conceptual art to an awkward conversation between a wooden news anchor and a confused reporter in the rain, it’s obvious that the filmmaker and performer are mocking conceptual art while also providing a remarkable example of the form. It’s pretty brilliant, but obviously the sort of thing that requires active viewership.
Perhaps seeing ‘Manifesto’ edited together into a feature length form isn’t ideal. When the project played in galleries, all of the shorts played simultaneously, allowing Blanchet’s monologues to play as an active conversation that contradicted, overlapped, and connected with itself through a variety of means that viewers had to connect together themselves while moving through the space. Strung together (and occasionally connected through montage), ‘Manifesto’ doesn’t quite manage to sync up in the same way (and also tries patience ever so slightly in ways that would have been less pronounced when consumed at the viewer’s pace in varying order). That’s just something that the feature film version can’t possibly recreate and has to be accepted as a limitation of this version.
To make up for that, the deliciously cinematic nature of each short is far easier to appreciate when blown up on a big screen and viewed without the other segments competing for attention simultaneously. This is a beautifully constructed work and Blanchett takes control of each frame with ease. She finds ways to make complicated essayistic writing feel conversational and distinct to a wide array of varying characterizations that show off her extraordinary acting talents. ‘Manifesto’ serves as both an invaluable presentation of a distinct actress’ gifts and a complicated exploration a variety of artistic manifestos that are all intriguing and true no matter how oddly dissonant they feel in the moment.
A degree of appreciation for the artsy-fartsiness of the project may be required, but no one understood the ludicrous limitations of this project more than its creators. This is fascinating stuff.