Sick of linear narrative movies starring huge Hollywood stars? Well, here’s Cate Blanchett (yes, that Cate Blanchett) as the only star of an ambitious avant garde experimental feature film that works as a mosaic and doubles as a video installation. And it’s really, really good.
Manifesto is video artist Julian Rosefeldt’s remarkable sampling of over 20 creeds from significant art movements of the 20th century. I know that sounds weird, but hang in there, it’s really cool. Blanchett masterfully dons no less than 13 different personalities as she enunciates a patchwork of proclamations culled from figures such as Karl Marx, Wassily Kandinsky, and Jim Jarmusch. Each of her characters matches up with its own distinctive and reflective sets, scenarios and genres, synchronized to the director’s carefully woven snippets of past artists’ manifestos. The result is a sort of filmic version of rap music. Instead of sampling sounds, the director samples snippets of other thinker’s creeds to cleave to a sort of multi-generational manifesto of his own, with Blanchett being his MC. And that’s just the half of it.
The achievement of stringing together those very few sentences from volumes and volumes of books into a cohesive and potent structure is remarkable enough. However, the real triumph for Rosefeldt and Blanchett is in the audiovisual execution supporting the linguistic launch. The filmic expression is rich and inviting, born equally from director and actress in unique concert. Take for example the prologue scene. Ms. Blanchett plays the role of a bearded male vagrant (!). As she pushes a junk cart along, her lines come from Marx, talking about the decay the world suffers when it overconsumes itself. The character is the personification of body and spirit in decline. Her delivery punctuates the hurt from loss this person feels most with an embittered face, almost spitting at the camera. Meanwhile, the imposing background to all this is revealed as an abandoned and ruined factory in disrepair. Add it all up, and you’re getting your sight and sound brain activated and tickled. It gets pretty enthralling. Never static, the montage is at turns humorous, epic, sad, and slow-dancing. And that’s just the prologue! Every scene works just as well in its own way, regardless of whether it’s in a dank backstage punk rock party or even on a TV News weather report.
But just as a scene like that builds and delivers all its force, it’s suddenly gone and another artistic movement picks up the trail, with an attendant shift in character and mise-en-scene. Never fully dying, each segment’s character reappears throughout the film in inserts, just to add even one word of idiosyncratic flair to the latest manifesto, as if the past was always informing the present and future. It’s almost alchemy how it all comes together so perfectly. And apologies to fans of Peter Sellers – Cate Blanchett is the new queen of multi-role performances. Her 13 characters are all brilliantly executed, made all the more remarkable when you consider she delivered those performances in just 11 days of shooting, including lots of makeup changes.
Cinematically, it should be noted, Rosefeldt is just as much of a seamless chameleon as his star. Lovely milieus are crafted which do everything from mock a funeral to provide meditative contemplations of buildings as living things. Always, always in the service of framing the manifesto. More than once we go from hives to drones to queens and broods, our insect instincts trying to gain meaning from a larger culture and history. Such visual motifs carry to the eyes what the various quotes the director chose inject into the ear. The design and composition of the shots and scenes are thoughtful, exquisite and fulfilling. This is an eye-pounding carnival ride for big ideas, like a trippy kids’ show for adults. Every sense reacts to its sublime playfulness and deadly serious intent. This film throws a rock like Banksy and explodes in your face like a fireworks show. It’s a master’s class for performance, for filmic language, for 20th century art history, for history in general, and maybe even a little bit of geometry. The audience will get a lot for the price of the ticket. Be sure to try and see this gem in a theater, it only enhances the experience that much more (in limited release, so hurry!).