Sweetly randy, politically seditious and captivatingly pretty, "Manifesto" (at Cineplex Beverly Center only) is director Dusan Makavejev working at the top of his ironic form.
Taking off from an Emile Zola story about a very young and beautiful aristocrat with a spotless image and a taste for sport among her manservants, Makavejev has added his own pungent views on zealots of every stripe, and created a deliciously bawdy fairy tale spun in confectionary colors.
The animated credits, whimsical and sophisticated, set the film's tone; we are in for shooting stars, sprouting bouquets and the bomb in the baby carriage. Or as Makavejev puts it: "After the fall of great empires, new governments appeared. They took themselves very seriously. Life became hard for revolutionaries. However, ice cream was sold and enjoyed as if nothing had changed."
Nothing has changed about Makavejev's eye for leading actresses, either. Continuing in the tradition of Gretta Scacchi, Carole Laure, Susan Anspach et al., Danish-born Camilla Soeberg (from "Twist and Shout") is Svetlana, the innocent-appearing, high-born revolutionary.
She's returning home from school to Waldheim, her beautiful, mountainous city (actually Yugoslavia's 13th-Century Skofja Loka) full of fervor, political and otherwise. Giving this walled fortress town the name of Austria's controversial president is only one of Makevejev's poker-faced puns; we'll discover others in the cast named after favorite cakes of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Sacher and Kugelhopf.
It's an eclectic, international cast, known to those who savor splendid acting: Alfred Molina (almost unrecognizable after "Prick Up Your Ears' " shaven-headed Kenneth Halliwell), Simon Callow, Lindsay Duncan (the Royal Shakespeare's award-winning Mme. de Merteuil in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"), and "Mask's" Eric Stoltz, as the story's white knight, to single out only a few.
The story involves the sexually rapacious head of the secret police (Molina), brought to Waldheim to make sure an "impromptu" appearance by the middle-European king goes off with bouquets, not bombs. Assorted revolutionaries, from Soeberg to her fanatic lover Rudi (Svetozar Cvetkovic, last seen romancing Susan Anspach in "Montenegro") to various villagers, have different ideas as to how the appearance should conclude.
Stoltz, who works at the post office, is not as much a revolutionary as a worshipful idealist who has adored Soeberg since grade school. He will make sure Callow, the town's chief of police, doesn't lay hands on damaging mail that arrives for her, while sweetly serenading her nightly with his flute.
Hardly worshipful is the practiced and sensual Emile (Rade Serbedzija), the family's lean, older estate manager who has been involved with Soeberg since she was an adolescent. (It's from this element of the Zola story that Makavejev's screenplay begins.)
Their relationship has always been the purest lust, with undertones of Strindberg's "Miss Julie," but only Makavejev would stage an athletic love scene among a passle of squirming golden cocker spaniel puppies. Lust among a virtual carpet of all this puppy warmth is hilarious--until it turns deadly. (The film's R rating is for the usual bravura Makavejev savors in all love scenes and for nudity.)
The Yugoslavian director has always had fanatics of every calling in his rifle sights, and "Manifesto" has more than its share. Wildest of all is the revolutionary Rudi, captured to be reprogrammed at the dour-looking Bergman Sanitorium. Put into an enormous treadmill wheel, The Permanent Revolution Rotor, he proudly prefers to stay in it and become the movement's martyr rather than escape.
Makavejev is also practiced destroyer of the cliche: the mother who sighs that she and her daughter could be mistaken for sisters; the wide-eyed village ice cream seller (toothsome Gabrielle Anwar) set up to be taken advantage of by the worldly Molina, or even the village schoolteacher (Lindsay Duncan) protecting her chicks from too-early worldly knowledge. Each of our comfortable expectations is turned upside down.
"Manifesto" is an exquisitely turned-out production, blithe, beautiful, sparkling. Fellow Yugoslav's Dusan Petricic's animated titles set us up, and Makavejev and his fellow film makers carry the tone through to the last, wicked, sardonic detail. Counter-counterrevolution never had it so good.
A Cannon Group, Inc. presentation of a Golan-Globus production of a Dusan Makavejev film. Executive producers Michael J. Kagan, Tom Luddy. Producers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus. Writer, director Makavejev. Screenplay inspired by "For a Night of Love" by Emile Zola. Damcera Tomislav Pinter. Editor Tony Lawson. Costumes Marit Allen. Production design Veljko Despotovic. Music Nicola Piovani. Sound Drew Kunin. With Camilla Soeberg., Alfred Molina. Simon Callow, Eric Stoltz, Lindsay Duncan, Chris Haywood, Rade Serbedzija, Svetozar Cvetkovic, Linda Marlowe, Tanja Boskovic, Gabrielle Anwar.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).