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The opening credits of visual artist Julian Rosefeldt’s chilly, academic Manifesto play over footage of an abandoned, demolished factory site. The camera moves in from the sky with god-like precision, weaving in and out of empty space, as the names and titles of the crew pop up strategically in the frame. Like everything else in Manifesto, this sequence exudes a great sense of purpose, but that’s all it exudes. Only the most experimental minds would even call Manifesto a film; to the rest of us, it’s just an idea.
To put it another way: For anyone who has ever said, “Cate Blanchett is such a great actress that I would watch her read the phone book,” Manifesto is here to hold you accountable. The film’s script is composed of the manifestos of various artistic movements, from the Futurists to the Dadaists to Dogme 95. Blanchett speaks each as a different character—a Russian dance instructor and a British punk rocker, for example. It’s not quite right to say she enacts these manifestos, as there is literally no drama here. Rather, she recites them in character, illuminating the distinct roles a manifesto can play. In one, she is a teacher lecturing her grade-school students. In another, she is a mother of two offering a prayer.
In one of the more inspired sequences, Blanchett plays both a hardened anchorwoman and an on-location meteorologist. “All current art is fake,” the newscaster begins, and after peppering the raincoat-clad weathergirl with questions about the nature of man and art for several minutes, the camera pans up to reveal a rain machine just outside of the frame. The contrivance achieves its desired effect: to make you chuckle, and then wonder if it was clever or dumb, or a comment on how clever things are actually dumb, or how dumb things are actually clever.
Whether that effect is worth your time and money is a more complicated question. Manifesto is clearly not a film for a general audience, and any attempt to construct a traditional narrative out of its parts is futile. Consider a piece of dialogue like this one: “The blue discharge of car exhaust scented with a dynamic modernity has exactly the same emotional value as the beloved talents of our exquisite modernists.” Many great artists have challenged their audiences with difficult language, but, like Shakespeare or Lin-Manuel Miranda, they give you an entire show to get used to it. Manifesto gives you only a scene before it leaves you wondering and wandering through another speech, another style of dialogue, and another Blanchett.
At least we have her. As all other attempts to extract meaning fall away, what emerges is a showcase for the Oscar-winner’s colossal talent. Blanchett musters a diverse and detailed universe of humanity to bring to life these characters who don’t exist at all on the page. Through expert vocal characterization and a deep well of emotional reserves, she wills a community of flesh-and-blood humans into existence. Sure, for much of the film, your head will spin, but when Blanchett’s face fills the frame, and she looks deep into your soul, you won’t feel like you wasted your time.
Maybe this is too generous, but it could even be what Rosefeldt intended. After all, one of the few messages that makes it through the verbal maelstrom of declarations and philosophical dead-ends is that there is no such thing as original art. The film repeats this mantra several times—perhaps to ensure we at least remember one thing as we run for the exits—the notion also brings Blanchett’s act of creative interpretation into full relief. If there is no original art, then interpretation is everything. Blanchett’s embodiment of this spirit makes Manifesto almost worth watching.
Manifesto opens Friday at E Street Cinema.