This is one of those films which you’ll either find fascinating or utterly pretentious and impenetrable, and as I wrote those words I was immediately struck the sensation that I’ve begun other reviews with practically the same phrasing (and will likely end up doing so again). In a way, I suppose my determination to wrangle with material of that type is an expression of my personal manifesto, if I have one – which leads me in a roundabout way back to the movie at hand.
Manifesto (2015) is a collage of political and artistic manifestos, broken up into 13 chapters and delivered by Cate Blanchett in multiple personas, creating distinctive physical and vocal performances to differentiate her individual characters across a broad range of occupations and socioeconomic statuses. Initially conceived as a multi-screen artistic installation with the 13 segments of the film running simultaneously, allowing the viewer to create their own juxtapositions, these segments were later combined and shuffled to together to allow them to be experienced as a single 90 minute film.
The film begins with a close-up of a burning fuse as the initial narrated text questions the very idea that there can possibly be one single manifesto of ideas to suit all individuals, cutting immediately before ignition to a view of three elderly women, dancing around outside, gleefully setting off fireworks and giggling like children, as if launching their own explosive statements of intent to illuminate their surroundings and prompt a response. After the credits run over an industrial wasteland, a drone gradually zooms in on a homeless man (Cate Blanchett) with a slowly trundling trolley bouncing over the rubble as an extract from the Communist Manifesto is heard, set free from its original context so that the disastrous outcomes of capitalism to which it refers could easily be interpreted as applying to modern times, rather than its origins in the mid-19th century.
Manifesto plays off against manifesto, sometimes supporting each other or seeming to respond to similar situations, other times in direct opposition to each other. From time to time they blur together, as the character speaking them shifts seamlessly from one to another, so that the borderlines between them are only apparent to somebody intimately familiar with the original texts. By allowing the texts to play with one another and create new associations in conjunction with their narrators or environments, director Julian Rosefeldt allows their similarities of form and differences of substance to create an appreciation for the manifesto as a form of art in itself, particularly through the love of language which is evidently a characteristic of those who struggle to communicate the passion of their desires for reform and calls to action.
Cate Blanchett adopts a range of performance styles to deliver the texts, from dispassionate narrator to strident loudspeaker announcement over a factory floor, from pissed punk to smugly pretentious CEO. As funeral orator she delivers the Dada manifesto over an open grave to an audience of mourners, an increasingly savage rejection of the worth of all systems which evokes the raw grief of a woman bitterly lamenting her loss. Breton’s Surrealist manifesto is delivered by a wooden puppet being assembled by a puppeteer who is revealed to be its identical model, evoking associations with the work of surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. The constructed reality of a TV broadcast news interview between a studio-bound presenter (Cate Blanchett) and an on-the-spot reporter (Cate Blanchett) huddled under an umbrella to shelter from a hose-generated “rainstorm” is used to deliver a lecture on Conceptual Art and Minimalism. And in the concluding segment, Blanchett’s primary school art teacher tells her students that “Nothing is original” as she delivers a film-maker’s manifesto cobbled together from declarations by Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog and Stan Brakhage.
Each of the twelve strands following the prologue is brought back together for the final scene of the film, as multiple Cates populate the screen and their voices join in the orchestrated babble of a Philip Glass opera crescendo, before blinking out one by one as the competing manifestos fall to silence.