Probably the place that makes the most sense to watch this work is on a monitor hanging in an art museum—a place where many of the manifestos on art being recited in the film can be observed in practice around you. But for those of you (including myself) who have claimed that you would watch Cate Blanchett in anything, here’s the chance to prove yourself, since she certainly proves that she warrants such faith in her abilities in Manifesto, an experimental work from German artist Julian Rosefeldt. In the film, Blanchett plays 13 different characters, each with a unique look, accent and series of monologues, each taken from the writings of a great number of well-known manifestos on 20th century art movements, representing the views of everyone from Karl Marx to Lars von Trier.
One of the few films I’ve ever seen with a “dramaturgical advisor” listed in the credits, Manifesto covers such movements as surrealism, dadaism, pop art, architecture, creationism, abstract expressionism, performance, minimalism, and, of course, film. In one of the final sequences, Blanchett plays a school teacher instructing a class of elementary school students on the theories of Jim Jarmusch and the Danish Dogme 95 in a patient, soothing tone, as if she were teaching them to tie their shoes. Other personas taken on by the actress include a newscaster (as well as her in-the-field reporter), a woman giving a eulogy at a funeral, an exasperated Russian choreographer, and even a homeless man wandering the ruins of an unknown city.
There’s no getting around the fact that Manifesto is a fascinating exercise in both acting and artistic expression. It also happen to be beautifully shot and composed, but the centerpiece of the film is the anticipation we experience waiting to see what Blanchett comes up with next. It manages to be an encapsulation of all that she is capable of, yet somehow it probably doesn’t even scratch the surface. With just a new wig, or a pair of glasses, or more/less makeup, her entire personality shifts, sometimes subtly, but often quite dramatically.
It likely goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), the film is not for everyone, certainly, and as much as I enjoyed hearing these many musings on the artistic mind and theories on what constitutes pure and authentic art, Manifesto left me curious about what Rosefeldt’s thoughts were as well, or at least which of these writings he values the most. As a traditional film, it may leave many frustrated and confused, but as an acting exercise and thesis on the past century or so of artistic discovery, it’s captivating and, more often than you might think, quite amusing.
It seems appropriate that the film is opening in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.