Manifesto (2017)

Cate Blanchett is in full chameleon mode in this fascinating and surprisingly playful film.  Neither fiction nor documentary, Manifesto is an entertaining oddity with a very unusual concept.

Blanchett plays thirteen different characters who between them quote excerpts from several 20th century political or artistic manifestos: situationism, futurism, architecture, vorticism, abstract expressionism, creationism, constructivism, dadaism, surrealism, pop art, fluxus, concept art and film.

That list sounds forbiddingly academic and dry, but the film is anything but.  It’s beautiful, peaceful, ironic and sometimes very funny.

Manifesto has art gallery origins, the first version was an installation of thirteen separate films, each around ten minutes long, that were played simultaneously on multiple screens in the Australian Centre of the Moving Image.  That exhibit has since toured several destinations including New York.  It was subsequently stitched together into this 90-minute film.

Visually, the film is stunning and architecture features prominently and impressively.  The opening sequence is of a vast, derelict factory; a breathtaking and graceful sequence shot by an aerial drone camera.  Ironically, it accompanies a heroic excerpt from the Communist Manifesto.  Later, a nuclear research facility appears at once both clinical and beautiful, the camera gazing at a swirling colourful staircase, an alien bank of lifts, and a messy yet hi-tech and vast experimental lab, all accompanied by the words of Rodchenko and Malevich.

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Cate Blanchett in an anechoic chamber, one of the visually stunning locations in Berlin for this captivating film.

It’s a lot of fun, not least because of Cate Blanchett’s amazing performance.  Playing thirteen different characters (twelve on-screen, one a voice-over) can’t have been easy at the best of times, but this was filmed on a low budget with very little shooting time.  In the Q&A she said that she didn’t even get the time to learn her dialogue, and was prompted by the lines on auto-cue, flipcharts, scrawlings on the hidden sides of props, anything.  The shooting was so short that she didn’t have time to overthink the characters or the dialogue, they just went with whatever felt right.  And perhaps that spontaneity lends this film its essential lightness of tone.

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Blanchett as a primary school teacher instructing her pupils in the film theories of Brakhage, Herzog, Jarmusch and von Trier

Her performances are incredible.  Each of the characters are entertaining and individual, which is quite an achievement when you consider that her dialogue is academic and she only has a few minutes to define each person.  Often the mode of delivery is in direct contradiction to the spoken words.  In one amusing scene she plays a mother sitting around the dinner table saying ‘grace’ with her husband and kids (played by Blanchett’s real-life husband and children).  As the bored and incredulous family sit waiting to eat, resigned to this seemingly endless litany, the mother recites Claes Oldenburg’s lengthy manifesto ‘I am for an art…’.  As she goes on and on (“….I am for the art of meowls and clatter of cats and for the art of their dumb electric eyes….I am for the white art of refrigerators and their muscular openings and closings…”), the kids yawn, the father rolls his eyes, and the audience giggles at the ridiculousness of the situation.

This is not a film that is afraid to poke fun at its sources.

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Cate Blanchett as a manicured newsreader called Cate discussing Conceptual Art and Minimalism with an on-location reporter, also called Cate

There are subtexts that I think will only be appreciated with repeat viewings.  For example, a camera calmly pans over a large collection of puppets,  key figures from the 20th century, passing by Freud at an opportune moment of dialogue.  The camera then turns to Blanchett as puppet master, giving her latest creation a voice.  The irony slowly dawns on the viewer that the statements on surrealism and freedom are given by a puppet.

One of the more immediately obvious subtexts is that most (all?) of the manifestos are written by men, but are voiced by a female actress.  Although Blanchett was keen to clarify that she did not intend this to be a Statement, she thought that the contrast was telling and it diffused the sometimes strident and emphatic words of the manifestos themselves.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a great deal of thought in the film’s conception and script.  Rosefeldt said he read hundreds of manifesto texts and distilled it into a coherent and fascinating dialogue.  And it is a genuine dialogue: although each theme is spoken by a single character, it is actually the combination of several manifestos.  Rosefeldt said he imagined it as a conversation, as if all the authors were sitting around the fireplace in debate, concordance or disagreement, but everyone with a confident point of view.  He himself didn’t agree with every statement in the film, but nonetheless he finds the ideas and the writing stimulating and beautiful.

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Cate Blanchett and Julian Rosefeldt in a Q&A after the UK premiere, 6th October 2017

Rosefeldt and Blanchett agreed that the most common question they are asked is ‘what is the film’s message?’, and the simple answer is that there is none.  The manifestos contradict each other, and the visuals and acting often act in counterpoint with the spoken word.  But to suggest the film is a meaningless exercise or an intellectual game is too simplistic.  Rosefeldt suggested that, if there is a message, it is a statement against populism.  Dismayed by the political climate of the last couple of years, where culture, intellect and art are held in deep suspicion, this film stands in defiance.  Proudly intellectual, it is a celebration of ideas, however wrongheaded or abstruse.

I can’t imagine what this must have been like as an art exhibit.  The dialogue is dense and I suspect a lot of the beauty and subtlety of this film may have been lost in the cacophony of thirteen voices speaking simultaneously. However during the Q&A that followed this UK premiere, director Julian Rosefeldt confided that there is a strong possibility that it might be shown in London next year in its art gallery form, so perhaps I’ll get the chance to make up my own mind.

Until then, we get the chance to enjoy a fascinating, beautiful, unusual and stimulating film that is at once engagingly accessible and intellectually stimulating.

update: Cate Blanchett and Julian Rosefeld gave an hour-long talk at the London Film Festival expanding on their collaboration on Manifesto.  You can watch a video here.

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Julian Rosefeld introducing the crew of Manifesto at the UK premiere at the BFI Southbank on 6th October 2017, part of the London Film Festival

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