By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
There’s no real way to review MANIFESTO. It’s a task that’s almost too challenging to achieve. The film didn’t start out as a film, but instead an installation at an art gallery. It first opened here in Australia back in 2015, going on to expand throughout the globe. The gallery was spread out across thirteen different screens. Audiences could wander around and experience every story in their own time. They were plotless shorts, unrelated in subject matter but connected thematically. Homegrown Aussie icon Cate Blanchett starred in all of them. Now, because of the installation’s popularity, the thirteen clips have been edited together into a strange and fascinating feature film.
What is Manifesto all about? Good question. It’s not about anything, really. The characters aren’t characters, just different snapshots of different lives, and within each of these snapshots is an extended monologue. Each deals with the discussion of art, debating whether its lost its way and also the fundamentals upon which artists need to follow. It’s a commentary on creativity, showcased through intercut shorts. The film is an art project turned feature film, if feature film is even the right way of describing such an experience. There’s no real link between anything. Everything is made captivating and connected by the great Cate Blanchett, who takes on a main role in every story.
MANIFESTO is strange, no doubt about that. It’s a unique, almost cerebral experience that delves deep into contemporary art. It dissects and analyses the basic fundamentals of art and what it all means, if it even needs a meaning at all. Director Julian Rosefeldt shares with the audience his perspective on the subject in a way that almost demands he’s right. He certainly raises interesting points and a unique view, but there’s somewhat of a condescending nature about the way he writes his dialogue. This isn’t about whether or not I agree with what Rosefedlt was going for, more on that later, but is instead about the way he delivers what he’s trying to say.
He seems passionate about art, and understands the subjectivity of it, but his messages can contradict. Points are raised about the way art is controlled or fabricated, yet his next monologue desires a different form of art entirely. Perhaps it’s about your point of view, but even then, they all wrap up together to deliver one final message in bewildering unison. They tie into each other, connecting the dots and delivering an impactful message on film criticism. He calls it out. He calls us out. The message works, you understand his point of view, and consequently there’s a shred of guilt flowing through me as I type out this review.
Did I agree with everything? Yes and no. Your level of enjoyment will depend heavily on how much you connect with what’s being said. If you disagree with everything, you’ll have a hard time enjoying it. But if you’re fascinated with his perspective, or maybe it even ignites something deep inside of you, you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more. It’s not a cynical movie, but it deconstructs the flaws apparent in modern art. A lot of interesting points are raised that I certainly agreed with, and there’s also plenty that allowed me to open my eyes and create a further realisation about what it’s all about. However, as he does contradict himself time and time again, it’s hard to agree with everything.
Certain ground rules are put in place and demanded, and it definitely won’t work well with everyone. Art impacts us in different ways, and MANIFESTO is a cry for individuality disguised occasionally in consumerism. One story sees Cate Blanchett playing a school teacher, and it’s entertaining and often daft, but it feels distant compared to everything else. It’s a portrait of those who wish for art to be a certain way, yet you can never tell if it’s revelling in the simplicity or showing it to us with a sense of irony. The line becomes blurred, and that’s the case with a few of the monologues. Messages are often unclear and certain speeches have a tendency to drag. The one hour mark felt closer to two.
Still, it may not be the most agreeable movie (of the eight films I’ve seen so far this year at the Sydney Film Festival, at the time of writing this that is, this one had the most walk outs), but it’s worth the price of admission purely to see Cate Blanchett portraying so many different unnamed characters. Technically, they’re not really characters. They’re vessels to allow Blanchett to shine, and that she does. Her range is on full display here in the most ambitious role of her career. She’s the only one who’s given more than one or two lines of dialogue, and she’s sublime in every single role. Some of the characters are almost unrecognisable as she sinks into the costuming and makeup. A bearded homeless man is especially impressive. It takes some time before you notice it’s her.
MANIFESTO is an unusual film, in that it’s not really a film at all. There’s a complicated simplicity about it, and writer-director Julian Rosefeldt handles the subject matter in somewhat pretentious, but ultimately eye-opening fashion. This is a film that will resonate predominately with a select audience, but those who enjoy it will fall in love with its daring nature and deep, constant monologues.
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