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Cate Blanchett’s Most Shocking Transformation(s) Yet

The Oscar-winning actress embodies 13 different characters—reciting the manifestos of various artists and thinkers—in Julian Rosefeldt’s ‘Manifesto,’ which played at Sundance.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Is there such a thing as too much Cate Blanchett? Manifesto, an art installation turned feature-length film, poses this question, among many more serious queries on the nature of existence, art, society, and everything in between.

The striking piece is the brainchild of filmmaker and artist Julian Rosefeldt. In its original iteration, which recently showed at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, Blanchett embodied 13 distinct characters to voice the manifestos of thinkers, artists, and revolutionaries. According to The New York Times, each screen in the exhibit was dedicated to a movement, from Surrealism to Constructivism. Blanchett’s characters, which took turns going about their daily business and reciting various manifestos, included mothers, punks, and scientists.

In consolidating from 13 screens to one, Rosefeldt cut his footage down to 94 minutes. In its new life as a feature-length film, Manifesto flits back and forth between characters—some scenes are recurring, while other Cate clones appear only once. Still, the film maintains a sense of separation between its movements. Each Blanchett occupies her own, complete world, like a short story or a painting that forces you to linger. Each deeply realized scene—from a TV news set to a lower school classroom—gives new life to the manifesto that animates it. As Rosefeldt told The New York Times, “These texts are reactivated and propelled out in the world, and they’re having their own kind of life again.” Aesthetic beauty leads us back to old movements, and asks us to reconsider forgotten words.

Then again, there’s something sacrilegious about chopping up a manifesto, feeding it through Cate Blanchett, and then re-releasing it into the world, Frankenstein-style. While the majority of the film’s texts are art manifestos, it opens with one of Blanchett’s alter egos reciting The Communist Manifesto. At the heart of the film is a recurring quote: “Art requires truth, not sincerity.” Manifestos are sincere. To the author, at the time when they are writing, they are the singular truth. In contrast, Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett dressing up as a homeless bum and howling Marx on a film set is sort of a joke. It’s downright funny to hear Marx’s words recited through a medium he never could have imagined. Robbed of the original context, the manifesto loses its urgency and its politics. How would any of the thinkers that Rosefeldt samples react to having their incredibly serious words transformed into an aesthetic experience? Is Manifesto really a celebration of the texts that Rosefeldt praises as “beautiful and full of meaning, often utopian, sometimes prophetic?” Or is it a reminder that any definitive command, any artistic prescription, is doomed to be erased and rewritten? That manifestos, while well-meaning and aesthetically pleasing, are ultimately quite silly?

For such a serious-seeming art film, there is an abundance of silliness here. At times, Blanchett is utterly absurd—as a wealthy collector in Warby Parker-style eyewear, telling a rarified cocktail crowd that “the art instinct is permanently primitive,” to polite applause. Or as the Southern housewife reciting Claes Oldenburg’s “I Am for an Art…” instead of grace, as her husband and sons shift and groan. Then there are moments that are just plain funny. A puppet maker character crafts a miniature version of herself, leading to two costumed Blanchett’s—one human, one inanimate—performing a tandem recitation. A bright, put-together teacher gently reminds her young students that, “Nothing is original, so you can steal from anywhere.” There is consistent comedy in the juxtaposition of dramatic, high-minded proclamations and the mundane images and routines of daily life. Next, she recites a Godard quote that could very well be Rosefeldt’s mantra: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”

These scenes take turns drawing from their manifestos and gently mocking them. Some of them—like a meditation on “the beauty of speed,” set to a chilling shot of a high-tech office stretching into infinity—seem to push the viewer towards philosophical contemplation. Others, like a frumpy single mom, seem to be inspired not specifically by their corresponding manifesto, but rather by whatever wig and costume combo Blanchett felt like challenging herself to embody. The most arresting moments are when the worlds that Blanchett is inhabiting transcend the words. There’s the moment when a scientist winds down a colored spiral staircase—a staircase that would be utterly out of place in a high-tech lab. At this point, the movie gives way to pure aesthetics. Because this is an unconventional film, not beholden to its manifestos or to any form, the camera lingers. The staircase spirals, pink and green.

Without a predictable narrative, we are keenly aware of artifice—the fact that Cate Blanchett is playing 13 characters, devoid of futures and pasts. These people are not real. That’s why it’s even more remarkable when Blanchett somehow manages to wring emotion out of characters that are essentially experiments. Her most gripping performance finds her delivering the Dada Manifesto as a eulogy. Imagine a grief-stricken Cate Blanchett showing up at a funeral and screaming at the attendees that “Dada is still shit.” Imagine that her grief was somehow still believable. It takes a brilliant artist to be able to channel some truly ridiculous dialogue into something illogically moving.

Anyone seeing this film for Cate Blanchett won’t be disappointed. But anyone looking for a new manifesto to swear allegiance to will leave empty-handed. Blanchett is consistently captivating as she breaks the fourth wall, spouts philosophy, and comes face-to-face with her own doppelgangers. But there’s no real meaning to this method/madness. Or, more accurately, there are a million floating meanings, a million directions, hypotheses, and possible conclusions. This movie is an aesthetic object, but it isn’t superficial or surface. It just begs questions instead of answering them. Manifesto ends on a slow motion shot of the children—our future!—who will doubtlessly grow up and transform our sincerest politics and revolutions into arthouse films. The 13 Cate’s flood the screen and their manifestos become pure noise.