Now that Daniel Day Lewis has announced that he’s retiring from acting, Cate Blanchett is my pick for greatest working actor in the world today. Everything about a Blanchett performance is hypnotic — it feels as though she’s simultaneously giving everything away to the audience while still holding on to something secret, deep at the core of herself. Any film with her in it is instantly more watchable.
If you’re the kind of person who enjoys watching performance for performance’s sake, you should definitely buy a ticket for Manifesto right now. (The movie screens tonight, Saturday, and Sunday at SIFF Film Center on the Seattle Center campus.) Blanchett plays 13 different characters in brief vignettes, ranging from a mentally troubled homeless man to a disaffected punk rocker to a vapid newscaster. She wanders around blasted-out cityscapes and shimmering sci-fi backdrops. She idly plays with puppets and she directs a flock of sleek dancers wearing silver superhero outfits. She inhabits each of the roles with exactly the care and consideration that we’ve come to expect from Blanchett. It’s a wonder to watch.
But Manifesto is likely to be a divisive movie, and that divisiveness is all down to the director, visual artist Julian Rosefeldt. The film started as an art installation, in which Blanchett reads selections of manifestoes from artists and historical figures as varied as Karl Marx and Jim Jarmusch. It doesn’t feel like a single film so much as a collection of thematically linked shorts, and the intentional weirdness of it all will likely scare away folks who get nervous at the thought of frenetic late-night conversations held by philosophy majors, or art school dropouts, or angry young writers. Oh, well; their loss.
The thing that saves Manifesto from even the slightest shadow of pretentiousness, in my estimation, is Blanchett’s commitment to the text. No matter how she reads the words of the manifestoes — as a tone-deaf meteorologist or in a thick Scottish brogue — Blanchett appears to believe every word that she says, and she is intent on communicating its deeper meaning to the audience. Her passion and her intellectual curiosity make every word riveting. (After watching Manifesto, one hopes she’ll find the time to record some books on tape in her busy schedule.)
Blanchett’s commitment is especially important because manifestoes are, on the whole, rather silly things. Most manifestoes hinge on a young person’s eagerness to draw a line around their own belief system and to declare everything outside that line to be phony and/or evil. Manifestoes make for great drama, but they also tend to make liars and hypocrites out of us all. The absolutist language of the text that Blanchett reads — in one monologue all art is meaningless, while in another art is the only thing with meaning — is, when taken in whole, contradictory. But in the moment, she incorporates every idea with her entire being.
It’s interesting, then, that Rosefeldt seems to abandon Blanchett at various points of the film. Manifesto’s production values are flashy and distracting from the text, which means it often finds itself at odds with the work that Blanchett is doing. Rather than resting the camera on Blanchett, Rosefeldt is always looking somewhere else — a set, a child actor in the background — and his nervous energy is operating at a different wavelength from Blanchett’s laser-focused intensity. At times the frisson between director and actor works into a nice comedic froth, but most of the time it’s just plain distracting.
This version of Manifesto left me longing for something more stripped-down: perhaps a stage version, in which Blanchett — with no other cast, costumes, or makeup — inhabits the 13 different characters and reads the text of the manifestoes directly to the audience. Just the devotion between one of the best actors in the world, and her words. That would’ve felt like its own small revolution.