This isn’t going to be a normal review. I won’t be assigning any numerical value to Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto – there really wouldn’t be much point. Manifesto is as much, if not more so, a piece of performance art as it is a feature film and I’m not nearly as qualified to assess performance art as I am film. I’d also hesitate to call it an art film – although, to be honest, I have no idea what makes a film qualify as an art film or not. If you Google ‘define art film’ it defines it as ‘a film that is artistic or experimental in its primary intent’. I guess no one told Google not to use the word you’re defining in the definition.
So just what is Manifesto? Well, Rosefeldt says that to write a manifesto, you must want to pit ABC against 123. Now that’s a definition that is in one sense, innately correct, and in another, utter nonsense. If I had to summate Manifesto into a phrase, I suppose the closest I could come would be to call it a discussion of art and its purpose, or lack there of. Manifesto engages in this discussion through a series of monologues all delivered by Cate Blanchett, who inhabits 13 different roles throughout the film.
Cate Blanchett is probably the reason why you’ve heard of Manifesto, and almost certainly the reason why at least a handful of very unhappy people are going to walk into the film completely unprepared for what they’re about to see. It isn’t just Blanchett’s star power that’s driven Manifesto to be more than a video installation piece – she is positively captivating, imbuing Manifesto with an energy that the film would be a positively academic drag without. It’s worth noting that Manifesto started out as a video art installation, with the different monologues playing on multiple screens simultaneously. This film takes that installation and distills it into a linear, 90-minute film.
Turning an art installation into a film is a bold experiment. It imposes an arc onto material that before did not call for one. It’s in our nature as filmgoers to attempt to build some sort of progression out of what we see. It’s the reason why editing works in the first place – we interpret meaning through juxtaposition. The monologues in Manifesto don’t stack in so neatly. They work in concert with each other but in a more holistic sense. If you took the pieces of Manifesto and scrambled them up into a different order, I don’t imagine the experience would change all that much. Or maybe it would. Like I said, I’m no art critic.
Regardless of the film’s structure, the individual monologues are positively fascinating. Cate Blanchett inhabits a dozen or so characters in different scenarios to deliver the monologues, from a punk rocker in a green room, to an elementary school teacher giving a lesson on how no art is original. Rosefeldt use of simple substitution produces moments of genuine humor while adding an additional lens through which to interpret the words being spoken. There’s something gleefully absurdist about watching an upper-class mother deliver an ode to art instead of grace over a family dinner, or a news anchor discuss whether or not art is fake on a cable news show, or a widow deliver a speech about art and shit in lieu of a eulogy.
Rosefeldt has, essentially built a film that allows him to wax poetic on art for 90 minutes. Is that genius? Masturbatory? Pointless? Maybe it’s all three.
Verdict: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ out of 5
In Manifesto, Rosefeldt states that ‘art requires truth, not sincerity’. Manifesto is filled of such proclamations, but it’s never clear when the film buys into its own profundity and when it’s trying to keep a straight face. I suppose you can decide for yourself. If any of this has peaked your curiosity, I do recommend watch as much of Manifesto as you care to. Cate Blanchett is spectacular and the work itself is occasionally beautiful, sometimes funny, often frustrating, and always interesting. It’s either a triumph or a giant waste of time. Either way, I’m pretty sure it qualifies as art.
Manifesto is having its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.