Manifesto is composed of Cate Blanchett playing 13 different archetypes, each one delivering an art-related manifesto while being shown in a different environment. The manifestos themselves span from Marx and Engels to Jim Jarmusch, and concern themselves on various points of focus from futurism to Fluxus. Director Julian Rosefeldt has paired each of these with a specific setting, which include domestic dinner tables, urban ruins, and futuristic laboratories. While Manifesto is ultimately not a very satisfying experience, it is far from underwhelming. There is a clear artistic vision and impulse, and even if I do not have the knowledge or insight to decipher what that is, the film was still engaging on the basis of the visuals and Cate Blanchett.
After watching Manifesto, it was not surprising to learn that it began life not as a feature film, but as an art installation. In that version, each segment was being shown simultaneously on a different screen, with an opening and ending that were synced up. It sounds immersive in that format, which is something I found lacking in the feature film edit. Rosefeldt has made the interesting choice to show some of the segments in their entirety, while many of them are divided into smaller pieces that are disbursed throughout the film.
While each segment is fully distinct— there is no way to confuse them giving how different they are aesthetically— this choice made the entire experience feel very distant. In making the choice to even assemble it as a feature film, Rosefeldt as artist must decide how to guide us through the experience. Watching the film becomes an immutable and fundamentally linear experience. From reading about the installation, part of the experience is that it is self-guided. Visitors could choose to view each of them in sequence, watching each in their entirety, or wander back and forth, experiencing them in random snippets. While it may seem that Rosefeldt has tried to balance the two, the feature film can never be random (unless it is Francis Ford Coppola editing Twixt before a live audience, maybe) or unique to each persons’ experience in terms of the order in which they experience the full project.
Rosefeldt’s edit affected the level of immersion I experienced in this project. By splitting up some of the sequences, it gave the feeling of being pulled from each one too quickly. By the time I got settled in and noticing the idiosyncratic details embedded within each, I was pulled away and forced to reorient all over again. And perhaps that is Rosefeldt’s intent. But it was certainly unsatisfying. It may also be exacerbated by my own lack of knowledge around these specific texts or with art theory in general. Blanchett’s delivery of each often wafts back and forth between dialogue and voiceover, which adds another layer of complexity to trying to understand the ideas being communicated by each of them.
But as a film, Manifesto has two saving graces. First is that each sequence is visually interesting, and brought to life in exquisite detail. There’s always something to look at, and there are often visual moments of humor sprinkled throughout. One sequence ends with a wordless pan over to a living room decorated entirely with taxidermy, as if presented without comment. Another features Cate Blanchett reciting a surrealist manifesto while operating a puppet of herself. They aren’t all equally interesting but the best ones— my favorites being the Dada speech as recited by a widow at a funeral and a teacher encouraging her class of small children to steal art from others— could easily stand alone as their own shorts. In part because they are so strong individually, but also because I’m not exactly sure what point Rosefeldt is making by presenting them all together (not that it needs a point, but still).
The second is that Cate Blanchett is one of the finest actors of our age, if not the finest. It’s no surprise that Rosefeldt was inspired in part by Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (a movie in which I am sorely overdue in revisiting), in which Blanchett is one of many portraying Bob Dylan. Since that film, she has been perfect in other roles that allow her diversity in performance to shine through, namely Joe Wright’s Hanna, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and Carol. And while the characters in Manifesto barely have any dimension, seeing Blanchett so wholly inhabit them with equal believability, whether they be a homeless man or a rocker is simply marvelous. Consequently, much of the film ends up feeling halfway between a one woman show and an actor’s reel. And how exciting does a Cate Blanchett one woman show sound? Seriously, if your answer to that question is less than “very exciting,” this film is not for you.
Manifesto opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.