This film does without most of the standard equipment of a feature: it has no plot to speak of, no real dialogue, virtually no interaction between characters, no character development, conflicts or resolutions. Its one, loosely integrated subject is art, specifically the statements, by artists and others from the 20th century, on the subject of art. It is also a showcase for the talents of two individual artists: actress Cate Blanchett, who plays all thirteen of the central characters; and writer/director Julian Rosefeldt, who came up with this remarkably original film, which defies classification but might be called a conceptual drama, consisting of a series of scenes held together, barely, by a common theme: the artist’s manifesto.
The unusual approach originated with an art project by Rosefeldt years earlier. He presented a piece consisting of a grouping of thirteen video screens; on each screen appeared a video of one person repeating an important statement on art. Each screen represented a particular school or philosophy of art. Since all the videos were being shown simultaneously, the initial impression would likely have been of incomprehensible noise, but the individual statements could be made out with some effort. Later, Rosefeldt considered expanding the concept into a film, while retaining the original approach to a great extent.
Manifesto moves from one scene, setting, and group of characters to another, with no attempt to connect them. In each vignette, a public statement on art, one which had a significant impact on the art world or on popular understanding of art, is made – not in the form of a public announcement, but as if it were part of the scene’s dialogue. The setting provides a background which is, in one way or another, relevant to the manifesto being presented – usually in an indirect way, but in a way that gives the words a twist and calls attention to them.Some of the pieces are more accessible than others. For example, it is clear enough why passages on proletarian art, Marxism, and the fall of capitalism would be declaimed wildly by Cate Blanchett as a ragged and dirty homeless man – one of the unfortunate casualties of capitalism. The segment on Dada is also more straightforward than most. It consists of a funeral scene, in which Blanchett is a bereaved window who stands at the graveside to give a eulogy. While the other mourners react precisely as if hearing unsurprising anecdotes about the life of the deceased, what is actually coming out of Blanchett’s mouth is a diatribe about the obsolescence of art conventions, of aesthetics, even of rationality. Evidently, the funeral is symbolically intended for these features which Dada has declared dead.
An intriguing aspect of the film, and a challenge for its main actress, is the deliberate disconnection between the spoken manifesto and the context of the scene in which it appears. As in the funeral scene, the central character appears to be speaking lines which fit in with the scene: a teacher correcting her students’ work; a TV news announcer giving a report; a young mother saying grace over a family meal. The other characters react as if to normal and expected dialogue. Only the audience seems to hear the words of the manifesto; it gives the statement a distinctive, other-worldly quality, as if it had been magically inserted into an ordinary situation by cosmic over-dubbing. The voices employed are chosen creatively, not only for their connection with the school of art in question but also for the pleasure of inventiveness, from an angry female punk rocker whose furious, drunken rant is actually manifestos on Stridentism, to statements on architecture issued through a scratchy public address system in a garbage incineration plant.The film recognises and uses the humour that comes from the contrast between the character’s words and the context. The best example may be the episode in which Cate Blanchett plays both a television news announcer and the on-site reporter she speaks to. Blanchett ‘reports’ on conceptual art, explaining to the imaginary TV audience that conceptual art depends entirely on the idea it presents, so that “if the idea is good, the art is good.” The camera then backs away to briefly reveal the scene’s set and equipment, reminding the audience that the film itself is an example of conceptual art. Other segments also revel in their absurdity, such as the earnest Christian mother apparently saying prayers at the dinner table, while actually reciting Claes Oldenberg’s essay on pop art. The director also seems to have great fun with a scene featuring a temperamental Russian choreographer, apparently barking out corrections to a troupe of weirdly costumed dancers, while actually repeating statements from members of the art movement known as Fluxus, and from various representatives of performance art.
The casting of Cate Blanchett is a big part of the film’s success; she transforms herself completely for each new character, and gives the reading of each manifesto with the mannerisms and tone of voice suitable to the character, allowing for the necessary, glaring contrast between the words themselves and her behaviour. Director Rosefeldt has mentioned that he liked the idea of having a female performer play the various roles, because nearly all the manifestos were written by men, remarking in one interview that “…the 20th century was a very male-dominated one,” so he chose to “counterbalance the male energies of the text with a female protagonist.” Whatever the reason, the collaboration resulted in a movie that is entertaining in spite of its extreme eccentricity, and far more accessible than its unfamiliar format would normally allow.