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Sundance Film Review: Cate Blanchett in ‘Manifesto’

Variety logo Variety 1/26/2017 Peter Debruge
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In 2008, actress Cate Blanchett earned an Oscar nomination for playing folk singer Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” As undeniably bold as that casting decision was at the time, it seems positively primitive compared to the one Berlin-based film and video artist Julian Rosefeldt dreams up for “Manifesto,” his feature-length version of a multi-screen installation (recently on exhibit at New York’s Armory) in which Blanchett serves as mouthpiece for 60 creative revolutionaries who staked their claim and stood their ground with regard to what they felt art should be.

Blanchett embodies 13 distinct yet generic characters for the project, playfully reciting the text in a variety of unexpected contexts — the Dada Manifesto becomes a funeral oration, while Claes Oldenburg, “I Am for an Art…” serves as a pre-dinner prayer — in such a way that brings fresh possibility to ideas were always intended to rock the world. How appropriate then that one of her personae should be a nihilistic punk in a spiky black wig, her arms covered in countercultural tattoos. The inspiration behind Blanchett’s other alter egos can be less immediately apparent, such as the nuclear scientist who confronts a “2001”-like monolith hovering in a surreal soundproof chamber — but they are never, ever boring, no matter how dense or daunting the manifestos she’s been tasked with reciting.

As such, audiences needn’t be intimidated: “Manifesto” may not adhere to any conventional narrative structure, but it’s compulsively watchable all the same, as Rosefedlt draws us into a hypnotic thrall, partnering with cinematographer Christoph Krauss to transform a series of evocative locations (most in and around the German capital of Berlin, framed like hi-res Andreas Gursky photos) into stages for different movements in 20th-century art.

To set the tone, Rosefeldt opens with a lit fuse (this scene received a screen of its own in the installation version), which gives way to a trio of old ladies, ecstatically shooting fireworks in an open field, as Blanchett quotes excerpts from “The Communist Manifesto.” While not an artistic declaration per se, Karl Marx’s widely known 1848 tract provides a template for the text to come: What is a manifesto if not a revolutionary statement of purpose, conceived from a place of impotence and frustration, by one (or in some cases, a like-minded group) that feels disgusted by and excluded from an allegedly bankrupt status quo?

And yet, there’s something inherently humorous about most of these missionary calls-to-action, if only because their authors tend to hyperbolize and exaggerate for effect. Establishment artists don’t need manifestos, as the system to bends to them, whereas outsiders must scream in order to be heard — which explains Blanchett’s first character, a bedraggled homeless man who howls his discontent from the rooftops, shouting into a bullhorn to no one in particular.

It’s a hilarious idea, and one of just many overtly humorous scenarios in the film, as Rosefeldt invites audiences to laugh without going so far as to overtly parody the many sources that feed his script. Some of the manifestos clearly resonate more with Rosefeldt than others, and in some cases, his directorial approach overtly contradicts the ideas in question. In one instance, no sooner has Blanchett recited Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” (“No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. … No to style. No to camp.”) than she reappears on-screen, transformed into the high-camp caricature of an Eastern European choreographer.

The funniest is by far the final chapter, set in a classroom where Blanchett plays a pre-school teacher who recites the rules of Dogma 95 as she corrects her pupils’ work (the scene also includes instructive snippets from Jim Jarmusch, Stan Brakhage, and Werner Herzog), while the most imaginative segment features Blanchett as a TV anchorwoman, posing rhetorical questions about conceptual art to a colleague (also Blanchett) reporting on location amid a heavy rainstorm.

Such absurd touches should in no way be seen as a sign of sacrilege or disrespect, despite the supposed sanctity of the artistic commandments in question; rather, Rosefeldt recognizes and enhances the inherently theatrical quality of his material. In nearly all cases, manifestos were meant to be recited — nay, performed — and Blanchett does so in nearly every accent imaginable, save that of a Southern fire-and-brimstone evangelical preacher (which might have made a nice addition).

Her characters are, in order of screen appearance: a raving hobo, a high-speed trader (in the Futurism segment), a blue-collar sanitation worker, a CEO, a punk rocker, a scientist, a funeral speaker, a puppeteer (complete with Cate Blanchett-styled puppet, designed by Suse Wächter), a choreographer, a newsreader, and a teacher. Blanchett interprets them as archetypes, not fully realized human beings, transcending both gender and class as she gazes directly into the camera lens, the transformations aided by makeup artist Morag Ross and hair designer Massimo Gattabrusi. As the movie morphs before our eyes, Blanchett’s voice offers the semblance of continuity, aided by Nils Frahm and Ben Lukas Boysen’s equally chameleonic score.

All told, “Manifesto” is an art film in the truest sense: It is conceptual in nature, nontraditional in form, and perfectly esoteric in appeal. Were it not for Blanchett’s participation, Rosefeldt’s bold experiment almost certainly would not have made a ripple beyond the realm of galleries and museums, and yet, by virtue of her involvement, festivals and art-house cinemas will be motivated to showcase the 94-minute feature — as well they should. What few could foresee walking into the experience is how an often-contradictory collection of dogma might inspire the artistically open-minded. Whereas a single manifesto rigidly demands creativity within constraints, this maelstrom of competing rules and regulations encourages viewers to take a stand and consider their own aesthetic.

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