Produced, Written and Directed
by Julian Rosefeldt
Starring Cate Blanchett
A movie in which Cate Blanchett plays different characters whose dialogue is almost entirely statements about art theory? Sounds like a snooze, right?
And yet, somehow, the first film from visual artist Julian Rosefeldt managed to keep my interest despite the absence of a plot. It also managed to be less pretentious, less arty and far less boring than, say, Terrence Malick’s virtually plotless, self-indulgently unscripted Knight of Cups, a movie where I was counting the seconds until it ended.
This film has something to say (hence the title) and you might not be entertained by all the verbiage, but there is much more going on than just what is being said.
Despite a low budget, the film is visually stunning, with extraordinary found locations like an abandoned factory and a strangely retro futuristic lab.
The number one appeal is, of course, Blanchett herself. The two-time Oscar winner makes a compelling chameleon as she transforms from homeless Scottish old man to Russian dance diva to grade school teacher to anchorwoman.
In each scenario, we’re given a few moments to establish each character in their own setting and see Blanchett really inhabiting the physicality of each person before she starts talking about art. Her look changes, her stance changes, her smile changes. And she displays a virtuoso command of several accents. You almost wish each character was starring in their own proper movie — for this really isn’t a movie at all, strictly speaking — until you get caught up in the texture and humor of each setting. (Or you may not! You may be bored silly.)
As a Russian diva, she barks at a group of dancers, “Purge the world of dead art.”
As a woman moving trash with a crane, she muses about architecture.
As a puppeteer (with a puppet that’s a miniature of herself), she talks about the subconscious.
As a flawlessly coiffed red-haired newscaster, she begins her broadcast with “Good evening. All current art is fake.” She then begins an amusing exchange with herself. (“Kate?” “Thanks, Kate”) as an on-the-scene reporter holding an umbrella in the pouring rain while discussing conceptual art.
As a teacher to a group of antsy grade school students, she instructs them that “nothing is original,” and urges them to remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”
The film also becomes a study on the art of speaking.
How a woman addresses her cultured guests is entirely different than how a student speaks gently to her grade-school students or the practiced, professional cadence of a newswoman. Or how a diva barks at the dancers who are disappointing her. (The dance scene, by the way, is one of the film’s highlights, with a group of silver-clad hoofers who look like a cross between a Busby Berkeley movie and a Xenomorph.)
Other funny scenes: Watching a Southern mom call her family to dinner and then begin to say grace. Even though all their heads are bowed and eyes closed, she offers up not a prayer, but what she wants out of art. “I am for an art…” she repeats like a mantra, describing art that gets dirty and worn and lived-in. We have to laugh at the discomfort of her young boys and husband as they shift uncomfortably while waiting for her to finish. The film intercuts between the characters throughout, so occasionally we cut back to the seemingly never-ending discourse still in progress!
And then there’s a funeral where Blanchett (sporting a red bob that makes her a dead ringer for a young Shirley MacLaine) lectures the mourners about Dada, and then proceeds to call them all idiots.
I did get impatient here and there and if a plot had broken out, I wouldn’t have minded. But overall, I was surprised how much I liked Manifesto. However, it’s clearly not for everyone. It helps if you’re a big Blanchett fan. And if you’re an artist or art scholar, there are plenty of in-jokes to make you laugh. The audience I saw it with laughed a lot.
Spending so much time thinking about the nature of art gave me a new eye for my surroundings as I walked back to my car. A movie that can alter your perception of reality, even for a moment, is a win in my book.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Manifesto opens May 26 in Los Angeles and then will expand to other cities