‘Manifesto’ Review: Cate Blanchett Delivers 13 Tour de Force Performances
Cate Blanchett is an onscreen force like no other. Over the years we’ve watched her bring her charisma to characters like Galadriel, Bob Dylan, Katherine Hepburn, Carol Aird, and Queen Elizabeth I. If it wasn’t already clear that Blanchett is one of the greatest actors of our time, then Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto will be living proof of her ability to transform into any character she sets her sights on.
Collage is one word to describe the experimental, non-narrative film by Rosefeldt, but it would be more accurate to call Manifesto a collage of collages. Across 13 short films Blanchett embodies 13 different personas that represent Dadaists, Surrealists, Minimalists, Futurists, Pop Artists, filmmakers, and more. In each segment, Blanchett embodies a character (or at one point, characters) and performs a poetic monologue that speaks to each group’s platform. But Rosefeldt didn’t write any of the dialogue himself; each short draws from three to six published texts written by artists, dancers, filmmakers, architects, and theorists. In a sense then, you don’t just get 13 Blanchetts for the price of one, but a performance of over 45 different real-life figures in one 94 minute film.
As if Blanchett’s resume wasn’t already varied enough, in Manifesto she plays her widest range of characters yet. She’s an elementary school teacher, an avant-garde choreographer, a scientist, a garbage incineration worker, a funeral speaker, a feisty punk, a conservative mother, a news anchor, a stock broker, a puppeteer, a CEO, and even a homeless man. Blanchett doesn’t merely dress up in various wigs and costumes. She completely transforms, with nuanced mannerisms and 12 (12!) different accents.
The hobo in the film’s opening segment, representing Situationism, pulls a cart through a desolate, smoking wasteland shouting about the evils of consumerism and capitalist society. In the Dadaism segment, Blanchett plays a funeral speaker clad in 1920s attire who performs a fiery eulogy over a casket – a symbolic death of traditional art and materialism. You can’t help but laugh as she vehemently yells absurd Dadaist proclamations to a crowd of mourners like, “You’re all complete idiots!” and “Dada is still s---, but from now on we want to s--- in different colors.” In the film’s funniest segment, Blanchett teaches a classroom of young children about filmmaking. She opens class by quoting Jim Jarmusch, then critiques the children’s storyboards with Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules.
Rosefeldt’s film was originally displayed as a video exhibition in Berlin and New York City where each short was projected on separate screens. I saw the exhibit in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory earlier this month and spent nearly four hours inside, moving from screen to screen in no particular order, watching some more than once. The shorts were timed so the endings of each – a tight close-up of Blanchett reciting the group’s final declaration in a monotonous tone – played in unison. It was a stunning experience, like standing in the middle of a vast choir of alternate universe Blanchetts. Initially I was worried that choral effect, as well as the cyclical, repetitive style of the shorts, wouldn’t translate well as one film. But Rosefeldt doesn’t just stack his 13 shorts back to back; he plays around with editing and uses a creaking electronic score to emphasize the differences between each ethos.
Manifesto speaks to a specific audience interested in art, and it isn’t for everyone; it may come off pretentious or highbrow to some. But even if you’re unfamiliar with the movements in the film, Manifesto is still a brilliant display of Blanchett’s unstoppable talent and Rosefeldt’s ability to use one art form – filmmaking – to explore so many others. There’s no one way to tell a story or respond to the chaos of the world, but Manifesto suggests that art can only triumph and evolve as it listens to its history and opens its eyes to other ways of seeing. Manifesto sets out to follow Jarmusch’s fifth golden rule of filmmaking: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” Rosefeldt does just that. It’s a thrilling and audacious experiment, and during our current perilous era, Manifesto feels especially inspiring, encouraging artists to keep seeking ways to use creativity to fight back.