I don’t get it. I tried. Repeatedly. But Julian Rosefeldt’s multi-screen film installation turned movie is so smug and ponderous that even the allure of 13 performances by Cate Blanchett couldn’t spur me from a stupor of annoyance and boredom.
Now playing as part of the Tribeca Film Festival Manifesto features the two-time Academy Award winner transforming from drunken punk to demure housewife, seething widow to plucky anchor woman, patient grade school teacher to spitting homeless man. Each incarnation offers a different manifesto extolling about art, politics, and/or life. The opening title cards blaze by in a full-frame frenzy with names, promising pronouncements from Karl Marx, Yvonne Rainer, and Dogme 95 (to name a few). But rather than focusing on the words, or even Blanchett’s performance of these manifestos’ prose, Rosefeldt drowns each proclamation in pomposity and mockery.
By adapting American sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s “I Am for an Art…” into a pre-meal prayer, Rosefeldt turns its ardent embracing of all forms into a joke. Bespectacled and reverent, Blanchett prays, “I am for art that is put on and taken off like pants, which develops holes like socks, which is eaten like a piece of pie, or abandoned with great contempt like a piece of shit.” And the towheaded boys playing her sons giggle unchecked as their mother uses a dirty word in prayer. Similarly, the eyerolls of her bored husband mock the length of Oldenburg’s manifesto, and undercut its earnestness and vulnerability, even as it’s chopped dramatically to a more manageable bite-size version.
Similarly, the Dada Manifesto drew spurts of laughter from the movie’s audience as Blanchett’s widow—divinely cinched in a snug dress of mourning and matching netted veil—delivered it as if a vengeful threat against those who led her to this place of overlooking a dead loved one. Without context, these thoughtful discussions of life and art are cast to the wind to cause confusion and spark giggles. They are ripped from their intentions, insight, and wisdom and made just another monologue to be dressed up with swooning crane shots across decrepit modern ruins of abandoned factories, or schoolyards of children frolicking in slow-motion, having escaped the precise rules put forth by Dogme filmmakers about lighting, diegetic music, and directorial credit. And so these manifestos are treated like the ultimate erudite inside joke, sneered at even as they are facetiously admired.
It was only those manifestos I had read before that I could even catch onto as Rosefeldt pitches his project from one setting to the next, careening from a posh dinner party, to a humble blue-collar breakfast of beans on toast, to the strange sea creature-inspired dance number overseen by a Norma Desmond-looking choreographer. The words of these world-changing manifestos are lost amid the whir of industrial machinery, the derisive laughter of children, and the film’s experimental aesthetic that refuses to let audiences lock in. And so I am confused.
How does Rosefeldt spend so much time crafting an art installation and film meant to explore the manifesto and by extension the very goal of art, only to undercut manifestos in every instance?
I wondered if perhaps the point of having one actress take on a slew of different roles and different manifestos was an attempt to show how these high-minded things impact humanity no matter their circumstance or privilege. That art is not only a thing for the art house and the museum, but also for the everyman (or everywoman). But honestly, I think that’s me giving this film more credit than it deserves. This experimental film refuses to be accessible. Instead of introducing broader audiences to manifestos in a setting inviting and evocative, it distances by chopping up these speeches into a senseless montage without apparent arc or flow. And if Rosefeldt’s casting choice meant to speak to art impacting all people, well that statement can hardly be pulled off by one white woman, even one as talented as Blanchett.
Admittedly, I’ve never been much for experimental film. To call it not my cup of tea, well, let’s just say I’d rather endure another Unicorn Frappuccino. But having friends who wildly sung the praises of Rosefeldt’s museum installation, and being a massive admirer of Blanchett, I gave Manifesto a go, again and again. With each new section, I tried to sink in and engage, enjoy, ponder. But no. Still, this genre does not speak to me. As the film went on, I could not connect. Instead, I grew increasingly frustrated at the form that willfully separated manifesto from context, writer from performance, and purpose from intent.
Perhaps as an installation, the freedom to travel from one manifesto setup to another would have felt more whole and less reductive, less glib, to me. I kick myself now for missing its New York bow. But as it stands, Manifesto the film—on its own—felt esoteric and smug, mocking art while singing its praises and preaching to a choir all bedecked with matching smug smirks.