Cate Blanchett has collaborated with an impressive list of renowned (and mostly male) directors, and the camera has always been kind to her milky-white face, which carries immeasurable emotion. Considering her breadth of work (her roles have ranged from a KGB agent to Bob Dylan), she could be a character actor masquerading as a leading lady.
German artist Julian Rosefeldt celebrated Blanchett’s beauty, chameleon-like abilities, and eagerness to engage with the art world in his film installation entitled “Manifesto,” which had its North American premiere at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2016. The piece starred Blanchett in 13 roles and was an immersive experience where the viewer could walk among different screens, each depicting a character delivering an art manifesto. The various manifestos covered the Situationalist, Futurist, Surrealist, Fluxus, Dada, Minimalist, and Dogme 95 movements, to name a few. Claes Oldenburg, Lars von Trier, Francis Picabia, John Cage, Werner Herzog, and many others round out the work’s source material as a veritable “Who’s Who” of 20th-century artistic thought. Their texts are esoteric, masculine, and potentially profound. Blanchett’s monologs would align at certain points during the performance in a spine-tingling crescendo.
In contrast, the subsequent 95-minute theatrical version of “Manifesto” is a poor repurposing of the work in a linear format. As a standalone piece intended to reach a broader audience, “Manifesto” falls flat and becomes a variation on the male gaze. Blanchett excels at taking on such roles—in fact, 13 of them. Perhaps this version of the film differs from the gallery installation because the viewer has become stationary (thus completing the gaze as a mere spectator) and subject to an unrelenting parade of wigs, accents, and words. Blanchett offers herself as a high-profile vessel for proclamations written almost exclusively by men. There is an underlying sense that she is not merely a collaborator but is instead complicit, that she is exploiting, not celebrating, her femaleness. (Her homeless man and frumpy blue-collar worker only serve as foils to her exquisite other characters and “real” self.)
To be sure, Blanchett is the sweet pill to make all the manifestos go down easy. (Confirming her indomitable beauty, the global cosmetics company SK-II, known for its skin-brightening products, employs Blanchett as its veteran spokesperson. Indeed, she is a glowing creature.) She channels the most convincing widow, scientist, religious mom, punk rocker, et cetera. Not only is the seated audience captivated by Blanchett’s mesmerizing onscreen forms, but they are hypnotized with a spiral staircase motif by cameraman Christoph Krauss, and lulled with copious drone footage. Undeniably, watching Blanchett inhabit a delicious array of costumes and personalities is a treat in and of itself. The problem is that the passive activity of looking at her distracts from and distorts the meaning behind each manifesto, often times for a cheap laugh. The film effectively becomes rather irksome. While such superficiality may have been the filmmakers’ intent, to poke fun at the underlying manifesto, the unintended result is that the film can feel somewhat pretentious. Imagine if the project had featured a male actor, say, Jude Law. Arguably the piece might have carried more depth and less shock value. But Blanchett was a too-obvious choice riding on the irony of masculine aesthetic thought being spouted by a certifiably beautiful woman. After the shock wears off, not much is left except an abundance of pretty images.
“Manifesto” will be released nationwide on May 26, 2017 and streamed on Amazon Prime later in the year.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the author and not her employer.