Made up of 12 short films and a stage-setting introductory film, Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto casts Cate Blanchett as 12 different characters spouting different artistic manifestos from the last century or so. The film began as a 13-channel art installation in which all 12 films play simultaneously, pitting all of these contrasting philosophies against each other. At one point during their 11-minute cycles, the films sync up, with extreme close-ups of Blanchett’s face tattooing all 12 screens as she continues her monologue in each.
That installation has now been turned into a traditional work of cinema, Rosefeldt kicking off with a selection from the introductory film and then, with the help of editor Bobby Good, intercutting the remaining 12 shorts together. Naturally, this approach extinguishes the appeal of being surrounded by multiple Cate Blanchetts all at once, and Manifesto The Movie also, to some degree, loses the installation’s original raison d’être. By adopting a more conventional “narrative” approach, one of Rosefeldt’s larger points—basically, making all of these varying artistic philosophies equal—is made less viscerally immediate than it would have been for a viewer standing in the middle of his massive conceptual art piece.
Still, even if Manifesto, by its very nature, can’t hope to replicate the singular experience of finding oneself lost in the many pathways of 20th-century artistic thinking, Rosefeldt’s provocative vision remains essentially intact. On one level, Rosefeldt is setting out a mission statement of his own. By situating the texts of thinkers and artists—ranging from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to André Breton and Kazimir Malevich, from Guy Debord and Sol LeWitt to Lars von Trier and Sturtevant—in real-world, modern-day settings, Rosefeldt aims to shake the cobwebs off these philosophies, taking them out of the historical context from which they sprung and trying to locate the eternal relevance in them.
He’s also, to some extent, taking the piss out of these artists’ attempts to make declarative statements about what art and the world ought to be. If you can get onto its unapologetically high-minded wavelength, Manifesto can sometimes be quite hilarious. Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto—which proclaims the death of logic, rationality and meaning—becomes the text for a eulogy delivered at a funeral. In another section, Blanchett plays a newscaster posing heady questions about conceptual art to a correspondent out in a rainstorm; the segment derives its comic frisson simply from the conceit of putting such hardcore-intellectual musings into the mouths of everyday media personalities. Perhaps the funniest bit, though—especially for cinephiles—comes toward the end, in a classroom-set segment in which a teacher tries to school her students in the tenets of Dogme 95, the Lars von Trier- and Thomas Vinterberg-conceived filmmaking movement that emphasized narrative, acting and theme over technological experimentation and even visual beauty.
Such humor, as well as the imagination Rosefeldt wields in trying to conceive of modern ways to bring these arcane philosophies to life, help warm up what might have come off as an insufferably pretentious academic exercise. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Manifesto is an uncompromising, esoteric work, one which will appeal to an extremely limited audience. At least there is the spectacle of Cate Blanchett, though, clearly relishing the opportunity to inhabit 12 different characters, adopting multiple disguises and accents. Blanchett has often proven to be at her best in roles that allow her to fully tap into her showy, theatrical side, and here tackling conceptions of characters rather than actual flesh-and-blood human beings, Manifesto frees her to bring as much imagination as she can muster.
Director: Julian Rosefeldt
Writer: Julian Rosefeldt
Starring: Cate Blanchett
Release Date: May 10, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.