There’s no dialogue in Julian Rosenfeldt’s Manifesto, just recitations of manifestos about art—plus the excerpt from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto that kicks off the first scene. That may sound like a recipe for didactic miserabilism, but the film is vibrant and engaging, even entertaining. What it’s not is particularly thought-provoking.
Manifesto consists of 13 scenarios, most of which play out in interspersed segments. Each setup starts with a leisurely and gorgeous establishing shot. Usually stationed far above the ground, the camera roves slowly and contemplatively over a man-made environment, cataloguing tall walls, orderly rows, or enclosed spaces, before descending into the scene to focus on Cate Blanchett. The actress plays a different character in every scenario, including a wild-haired homeless man ranting at the world, a cynical English rocker dressed all in black, and a perfectly coiffed, tight-lipped society matron. In a series of mesmerizing performances that dance on the line between realism and satire, Blanchett boils each character down to a sharply distilled essence.
The manifestos that her characters quote have no direct connection to the action on screen. That Godardian tension between text and mise-en-scène may be intended to ferret out deeper meanings in both, but the images are so much more powerful than the words that it’s easy to tune out the manifestos, which often feel repetitive and hectoring. In a recent interview, Rosenfeldt acknowledged the bravado of many manifestos: “[W]e shouldn’t forget that these texts were usually written by very young men who had barely left their parents’ house when they reached for the pen…. I read the artist’s manifesto firstly as an expression of defiant youth, then as literature, as poetry.” Unfortunately, the youthful bluster often drowns out the poetry in the statements Blanchett’s characters are endlessly spouting.
In one of the most successful juxtapositions of content and action, Blanchett plays a grade school teacher. An excerpt from Jim Jarmusch’s “5 Golden Rules (or Non-Rules) of Moviemaking” registers as satisfyingly provocative when the teacher recites it to her dutiful class, saying: “Nothing is original. Okay? So you can steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination…. I want you to remember what Jean-Luc Godard said. Alright? ’It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to!’” And when she switches gears, the sheer absurdity of the scene isn’t only funny but illuminating, carrying its own message about the arbitrary nature of nearly all edicts and absolutes as the teacher, exuding ironclad authority, walks through neat rows of obedient students while they work, pausing only to offer corrections or suggestions in the form of Dogme principles.
The film’s visceral pleasures often work at cross purposes with the cerebral message of the manifestos, though. That makes Manifesto a failed experiment: a film about ideas that’s visually magnificent but intellectually anemic.