Review: Daring ‘Manifesto’ channels artistic declarations through a spirited Cate Blanchett
Condensed into a feature-length film from a multiscreen video installation, Julian Rosefeldt’s invigorating “Manifesto” moves among a baker’s dozen of vignettes, each one pairing a different character played by Cate Blanchett with a 20th century art movement. From a raging homeless man to a heartless financial trader, grade-school teacher to future-world scientist, she inhabits them all with a diamond-sharp ferocity that suits the matter at hand.
In all of Blanchett’s 13 vivid guises, every word she speaks, whether in the form of dialogue or voiceover musings, was written as a statement of purpose and an act of provocation. With a foundational dose of Marx and Engels, “Manifesto” excerpts almost 60 such philosophical tracts. Some are as recent as Dogme 95, the cinematic call to arms of Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Many are a century old and still thrilling in their audacity.
There’s bracing humor too, if not a moment-by-moment coherence, in this mashup. The words can feel scoldy, but they get an electric charge from incongruous settings and the committed work of Blanchett, whose previous shape-shifting accomplishments include a brilliantly recalcitrant Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”
Her lips blood-red behind a widow’s veil, she goes Dada on a funeral gathering, channeling avant-garde writer Tristan Tzara to tell the mourners, “You are all idiots.” We get late-night rant as manifesto from a raven-haired punk rocker in the sequence on Stridentism. And corporate spiel as manifesto: Blanchett’s sleek blond CEO, all air kisses and coos of “darling,” reads reassuringly from index cards, her words drawing on statements from the Blue Rider movement as well as the schools of vorticism and abstract expressionism.
The closing credits reveal the source material for each section, which otherwise will probably be evident only if you have a PhD in art history. But it’s less a question of suprematism or pop art than the experience of energetic friction that Rosefeldt and Blanchett are stirring up. It’s not simply what they’re quoting but how they’re doing it.
Cinematographer Christoph Krauss’ fluid camerawork creates a visual poetry from industrial wastelands and an impressive assortment of locales. (The film was shot around Berlin — remarkably, in less than two weeks.) In everything from the stock charts on computer screens to the city’s hulking apartment blocks, there’s a geometry that at times recalls the alarming beauty of the 2006 documentary “Manufactured Landscapes.” At other times that geometry is weirdly whimsical: the precise formations of dancers done up like human-insect hybrids, Vegas-style, while Blanchett’s deliciously imperious Russian choreographer barks at them about Fluxus.
Within the brief screen time for each of her roles, Blanchett manages to convey plenty, especially in the pained disappointment on the face of a blue-collar worker at a garbage incineration facility. As a very different type of mother, a prim Southern matron taking her sweet time serving lunch, she’s the unlikely voice of a playfully irreverent 1961 manifesto by sculptor Claes Oldenburg (“I am for the art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper”).
In the film’s strongest sequence, and its most feverishly comic, Rosefeldt turns cable-TV blather into manifesto. His adventurous star plays both a blow-dried news anchor and the weather-challenged correspondent with whom she’s debating conceptual art. Not only are Blanchett’s vocal inflections and tight smile pitch-perfect, but the filmmaker uses the small-screen setup in a way that’s particularly effective and of the moment, even though the film was made two years ago.
Whatever Rosefeldt intended, “Manifesto” doesn’t quite set forth a manifesto of its own. But it’s a blast of fresh air. And like many of the gauntlet throwers it cites, it risks looking foolish and, in the process, creates something gorgeously defiant.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles
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