German filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto” is, in the director's words, “an homage to the beauty of artists’ manifestos — a manifesto of manifestos.” For Rosenfeldt that meant putting the words of various manifestos by artists and intellectuals including Karl Marx, André Breton and Jim Jarmusch into the mouths of 12 different characters (a scientist, a puppeteer, a homeless man, etc.) — all of them played by Cate Blanchett.
Titling the work “Manifesto” seems an obvious choice, though a thoughtful one. Rosenfeldt calls it “a clear statement that the focus in this work is above all on texts, whether by visual artists, filmmakers, writers, performers or architects — and on the poetry of these texts."
But watching the film begs the question: If the poetry of these texts is really so close to Rosefeldt's heart, why does he drown it in striking scenes set in such immaculate geometry and color that they verge on the surreal and distracting?
Divorced from context and presented with stunning visuals, the texts begin to lose their meaning after a while. Really, it's best to understand “Manifesto” as an art film that’s not so much about art as it is about about art. Repeat that sentence in your head a few times, let the words blur until they lose meaning, and you're basically watching the film already.
Or picture an image presented in the film of a spiraling staircase the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, shot from above so that it resembles a spinning top. What begins as a familiar object becomes an unending and spellbinding red-and-green mystery. It's beautiful, but not exactly enlightening.
By featuring those visuals and focusing on many manifestos rather than one, "Manifesto" stresses form and style over content and meaning. “Oftentimes,” Cate Blanchett said about playing her roles, “I didn’t think about what I was saying; it was about the intention. I could be speaking Swahili right now, but you could glimpse what I was talking about by the stress, or the way I’m using my hands. But it was very instinctual.” Right.
Despite the hit-and-miss nature of this highfalutin concept-art, “Manifesto” comes across as successfully, outrageously funny. As authentically enthusiastic as Rosefeldt seems to be about manifestos, he seems equally aware of the pretentious ridiculousness lurking within them.
“[W]e shouldn’t forget that these texts were usually written by very young men who had barely left their parents’ house when they reached for the pen,” Rosefeldt told an interviewer. “Thus their manifestos are not only texts which are intended to turn art — and eventually the whole world — upside down and revolutionize it; at the same time, they are testimonials about the search for identity, shouted out into the world with great insecurity.”
One of Rosefeldt’s many clever choices here was using an actress to voice documents primarily written by men. In each role, Blanchett pokes holes at the outsized masculine confidence of the various authors by saying their words with the utmost seriousness in absurd settings. Each of her characters is utterly self-assured and yet utterly un-self-aware as they hold forth at a widow’s eulogy, the recital of grace or an elementary school teacher’s lesson.
The casting of Blanchett proves essential beyond her gender. Without her, it seems unlikely that such an esoteric passion project could make it to the screen. There are few actors talented enough to convincingly, deftly play 12 wide-ranging roles in just 12 days of shooting. There are fewer still who could attract audiences to see them try the feat in what is, at its core, a high-concept art film.
In the film’s publicity, “Manifesto” has been referred to as “the film where Cate Blanchett plays 12 roles,” stressing its neat gimmick. But beyond simply allowing the film to exist, this half marketing, half artistic ploy enhances it. It points the audience back to the underlying essence of all manifestos — gorgeousness and grandiosity.