What is the message behind Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto? When it first opened as an art installation in 2015 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (and later at the Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin), each segment of the film – all featuring Cate Blanchett, in a number of varied and unnerving roles – was placed separately, all playing together, layering manifesto upon manifesto like an ironically intellectual shout into the void. The isolated nature of each clip removed any kind of context from the manifestos themselves, which range from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles’ Communist Manifesto to manifestos on Dadaism, Futurism, Spatialism, and any kind of art or architectural movement of note in the last century and a half.
To compartmentalise the beliefs and values that tie such movements together into a ten-minute monologue is to invite the viewer into a space of claustrophobic ambiguity that requires trust and artistic direction. Both of these things I think Julian Rosefeldt is able to achieve with Manifesto, most of the time. The camerawork lets us peek into the bizarre lives of each of Blanchett’s alter-egos in a way that feels voyeuristic – almost like we shouldn’t be there, and yet cannot tear our eyes away. Pair that with the obscure speeches themselves, which dip in and out of various manifestos in often-contradictory visual settings (on architecture: the operator of a garbage incineration plant; on pop art: a strongly conservative mother and her family saying grace), and it often feels as though we have entered a strange vacuum, void of sense and logic, in which artistic ideology is the only method of communication.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Rosefeldt’s project would not have happened, or found success, if it were not for Cate Blanchett’s irresistibly unapologetic acting. At this point, everyone under the sun knows that Cate Blanchett is a blessing to the profession – you need only look at her work in Blue Jasmine or I’m Not There to see why – and, being honest, it’s only her that could have ever carried this whole thing off with an air of effortlessness. At points, she bites down hard on cold modern artistic truth as a ruthless redheaded TV presenter; at others, she is an emaciated and angry homeless man pondering Situationism. There is never a moment, in these wildly ironic sketches or the more restrained ones in between, in which we question her presence as a character. And yet even her skill can’t make up for the inaccessibility of the soliloquies at times, which is especially highlighted by the removal of any context from the words being said.
Overall, Manifesto is a rich, if not perplexing, exploration of ideology and context. At times it feels almost dystopic in its attitude towards modernity and art – something Rosefeldt sometimes only seems capable of conveying heavy-handedly (see: “NOTHING IS ORIGINAL” being blasted on live TV). But, in terms of ambition, no other experimental piece of art/film in recent memory has tried to accomplish what Manifesto set out to do. It’s at times absurd, funny, lyrical and poignant, thanks to the indomitable force of Cate Blanchett and the intriguing visuals. But don’t be surprised if you leave the cinema more confused than when you went in.