Cate Blanchett practically eats the camera lens in “Manifesto,” a feature by artist Julian Rosefeldt that began life as an installation at the Park Avenue Armory show in Manhattan. Blanchett plays 13 separate characters who deliver various manifestos, and these reach from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels preaching on economics in the mid-19th century to rules for filmmaking delivered by director Jim Jarmusch in 2004.
The surprise here is that Rosefeldt has managed to deliver an intellectually-charged, cheeky, and very funny film that feels unruly and expansive in spite of its tight 12-day shooting schedule and its focus on just one performer. Blanchett is first glimpsed playing a homeless man trudging across a blasted industrial landscape in Berlin, and we hear her on the soundtrack speaking the words of Marx and Engels, who claimed in 1848 that capitalism was on its last legs.
Next we see Blanchett as an office drone on the stock exchange, and her voice tells us, “The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp,” which is a line from a manifesto on futurist painting. Rosefeldt brings his camera way up above the exchange to let us see how this woman disappears into row after row of people who have been reduced to objects, or numbers.
Blanchett has no fear as a performer, and she has such enormous appetite for acting that she rips into each of the characters she is playing in “Manifesto” as if she were hungrily stripping meat off of chicken legs and then hurling the bones over her shoulder. She is such an acting prodigy that she needs to be properly challenged, and “Manifesto” is such a challenging and unlikely project that Blanchett uses her talent as she never has before, splashing it all over the screen and making bold gestures that only become physically overdone when she plays an Eastern European choreographer in a turban.
(Blanchett is definitely the sort of go-for-broke acting beast who does require a director to sometimes tell her things like, “You need to scale down those sweeping arm movements.”)
Much of the humor and meaning in “Manifesto” emerges from the contrast of Blanchett’s characters with her surroundings and with the words she speaks, which is why she gets her biggest laughs here by launching into an angry Dadaist mission statement as a eulogy at a funeral, delivering these amusingly inappropriate words in a blatantly emotional and serious and furious way. So many of these manifestos are anti-establishment, and almost all of them are powered by the urge to smash existing norms and return to or create some kind of pure artistic state.
On the one hand, Blanchett herself is the sort of decadent artist that all of her characters in this movie are obsessively speaking out against, and so it is often hilarious to hear her constantly calling for the abolition of the very type of art that she is so flashily practicing. On the other, Blanchett has a naturally destructive and anarchic sensibility that lends itself very well to rebellious posturing, especially for the character that suits her best: a raging and drunken lower-class British goth rock-and-roll singer who has a tattoo of Peter Lorre in “Mad Love” (1935) on her left shoulder and also on the inside of her right arm. Lorre’s stretched-out face is hovering at one point near Blanchett’s own harshly made-up face as she declaims that her “confidence is unswerving,” and this is great fun because it looks as if one classic ham actor is staring at another.
Rosefeldt provides a considerable guiding intelligence in “Manifesto” and keeps a tight control over material that could easily dissolve into chaos. “The art instinct is permanently primitive,” says Blanchett when she plays a rich art collector, a lady who also cries out, “No to the seduction of the spectator by the wiles of the performer!” This is one of the most ironic moments in “Manifesto” because Blanchett’s style here is of course nothing but wiles and seductions and flourishes.
“Manifesto” ends with maybe its wittiest sequence, as Blanchett plays an art teacher who quotes French film director Jean-Luc Godard to her kids and insists that “nothing is original” before hitting them with directly contradictory quotes about authenticity from the Dogme 95 film movement of the 1990s. In the last moments of “Manifesto,” Blanchett’s characters are all present on screen in individual panels and they are all speaking at once, and this provides a fitting climax to a film that is a head-trip in the best possible sense.