Cate Blanchett plays thirteen different roles in this cerebral compendium of musings on the mode, meaning and medium of art. 

Manifesto is not a film. It’s an intellectual anthology comprised of recitals of the musings of various thinkers over the last century, each of which takes the form of Cate Blanchett in a characterful disguise. The central tenet of the film is to delve into the question of what art is and what it should mean. That said, if you’re looking for answers, you’re in the wrong place.

Julian Rosefeldt’s treasury of treatises includes everything from Karl Marx’ 1848 Communist Manifesto, to Jim Jarmusch’s 2004 Golden Rules of Filmmaking. Each of the intellectually fuelled thought pieces are narrated by the fantastic Cate Blanchett, who plays thirteen characters. There are no other speaking parts, nor dialogue.

It helps not to go into this film blind. Manifesto was originally a multi-screen art installation, shot over 12 days in Berlin in 2014 and then exhibited in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, Australia. Rosefeldt has neatly knitted together the various miscellaneous, compartmentalised vignettes and sewn the threads tightly into a 95 minute feature film.

The result is an inventive and unprecedented approach to tackling the concepts associated with art and art criticism. There’s no narrative whatsoever outside what you can take from each of the tableaus, staged in different locations and with no sense of time or space, and as such 95 minutes provides for enough dogma and thought-excercises for a lifetime.

Blanchett's Homeless Man channels Guy Debora's Situationist Manifesto (1960). Photo: Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Blanchett’s Homeless Man channels Guy Debora’s Situationist Manifesto (1960). Photo: Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Berlin’s soviet-era history provides for some stunning imagery and architecture, from abandoned warehouses to dystopian factory plants. One image in particular is hypnotic, the gently swirling, pink spiral staircase down which Blanchett’s scientist character snakes on her way to a hypnotic, CGI-infused room containing an ambivalent monolith whilst over the speaker Kasimir Malewitsch’s Suprematist Manifesto is blurted out.

Atli Örvarsson’s captivating score goes a long way towards creating the unsettling feeling that spans the whole breadth of the film. When it is allowed to dominate the audio, it’s lends the film much-needed respite from Blanchett’s wordy orations.

There is some space for humour, particularly in the exchange between news anchor ‘Cate’ and reporter ‘Cate’ as they eviscerate the meanings of conceptual art to the tune of Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art. There’s also the baffling Sunday dinner exchange as Blanchett’s 1950s mother gives voice to Claes Oldenburg’s I am for an Art in the form of a prayer.

Blanchett's scientist discovers a monolith to the tune of Kasimir Malevich's Suprematist Manifesto (1916). Photo: Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Blanchett’s scientist discovers a monolith to the tune of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist Manifesto (1916). Photo: Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Also in the fold are a Russian choreographer bitterly ripping into her hypnotic, alien troupe of dancers to the tune of George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto in what can only be described as a reproduction of an Acid trip, a dystopian world in which a tramp declares capitalism dead as per Guy Debord’s Situationist Manifesto, and a funeral oration comprised of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto in which Blanchett, unnamed, declares, “Dada remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours.”

It should be commended that Blanchett was chosen to voice the words of the authors and thinkers, since so few of the manifestos themselves come from women. Her powerful delivery is a testament to her power as an actress.

What’s interesting about the film is its own attitude to itself. At times, it’s easy to think that it takes itself so seriously as to be contrived and convoluted. At others, it seems to satirise those watching, those making the art, those reading the theories, and even itself. When a primary school teacher recites the Golden Rules of Filmmaking, it’s clear that even a film as unconventional as this one has kept to the trodden path more often than not.

During other scenes, the whole thing seems as if it’s a contemplation on the futility of modern life as our factory worker moves rubbish from one pile to another.

The film was initially an art installation at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2015.

The film was initially an art installation at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2015.

If you know your art, the chances are you’ll love it. If you don’t, you’ll certainly learn something even if the film misses the mark on the entertainment front and leaves you mentally exhausted from trying to listen and watch at the same time. Either way, you’ll be none the wiser as to the point of art, but it’ll give you something to talk about.

What is art? What is the point of art? What is the role of the artist? Should art mean anything at all? Should art be understood, authentic, original? Can it be both? Should it be truthful or incredible? Should it be comprehensible at all? You’ll find no answers here.

Manifesto is released in cinemas on 24th November. 

★★★★☆