Many words have been written contemplating the jaw-dropping abilities of Cate Blanchett, the great Australian actor whose oeuvre feels less like a collection of performances than a movement or genre unto itself. There are action movies, horror movies, comedies, romances, documentaries… and there are Cate Blanchett productions. Her striking collection of films spans a wide variety of genres and performative styles, reflecting the boundary-pushing approach of a performer who obviously delights in defying conventions and closing the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.
Want to see Blanchett as a Marvel villain? No problemo: she was Chris Hemsworth’s bloodthirsty goth adversary Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Want to see her in a lavish period piece? There’s the beloved ’50s-set lesbian romance Carol (in which she plays Rooney Mara’s older lover) and the 16th century regal drama Elizabeth, which brought her international acclaim. Since the latter film’s 1998 release, Blanchett’s career has been impossible to predict. She’s oscillated between blockbusters (i.e. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies) to Australian productions (like the Sydney drug drama Little Fish) and some head-turning oddities, such as portraying the chain-smoking, jiving, ’60s-era Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
Just when you think critics have exhausted every plaudit to describe a Blanchett performance – and that her next one couldn’t possibly match the acclaim of her last – along she comes with another role that sends reviewers into tizzies of excitement. And so it’s no surprise that an orgy of acclaim surrounds writer/director Todd Field’s new film Tár, starring Blanchett as Lydia Tár, a renowned fictional conductor described by The Washington Post as “the most indelible character to materialize on-screen this year.” Tár is despotic and deeply flawed, Blanchett’s portrayal falling squarely into the realm of the tortured genius. Accolades have been flowing like water from a busted main. The Guardian for instance described Blanchett as “utterly magnetic”, while the Los Angeles Times called her performance “unimprovable.”
The bad news for Australian audiences is that Tár isn’t arriving in local cinemas until January: a painful wait for one of the most acclaimed performances of the year (from probably our most acclaimed actor). You could put this period to good use, however, by acquainting yourself with Blanchett’s most striking work – in a film that, I’m guessing, almost certainly passed you by. This production hasn’t made a big impression on the zeitgeist and certainly didn’t make much money; the words “video art installation” don’t exactly scream “box office sensation”.
And yet that’s how Julian Rosefeldt’s 2015 film Manifesto originated: as an elaborate installation project that appeared in various museums and artistic spaces around the world. It isn’t accurate to say that Manifesto contains Blanchett’s best performance, because that word needs to be plural: performances. She portrays an eclectic ensemble of 13 characters – including a grubby homeless man, a scientist, a newsreader and news reporter, a Russian choreographer, a hazmat-suited plant worker and a conservative American housewife – and inhabits each character with a zeal and gusto for which the term “tour de force” seems tailor-made. Manifesto is a dazzling showcase of Blanchett’s abilities and a great encapsulation of the daring and experimentalism underpinning her work.
Cate Blanchett obviously delights in defying conventions and closing the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art
There is no dialogue per se, the verbal elements almost entirely comprised of, well, manifestos – some long and famous, others short and obscure – from various writers and eras, each ruminating on different aspects of art and philosophy. They’re delivered by Blanchett in the form of speeches, informed by the mannerisms of each character and the environments surrounding them. The newsreader for instance delivers a monologue on conceptual art and minimalism in the style of a news bulletin, beginning: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. All current art is fake…” The conservative Christman mother recites a manifesto about pop art in the form of a prayer (“I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all…”). And a red-headed woman in a veil, at a funeral, delivers a manifesto about dadaism, the avant-garde European art movement launched in the early 20th century, in the form of a eulogy.
These rather grandiose forms of speech aren’t exactly the kind of words spoken during happy hour at your local watering hole. But Blanchett makes them almost remarkably accessible, using characterisation to give the manifestos distinctive and varied flows. The language is dense and chewy, and the underlying concepts challenging, so you won’t be focusing on every word. But the uncanny spectacle of witnessing the chameleonic actor nail each character, morphing and transmogrifying before our eyes, turns what might have felt impenetrably lofty into a consistently captivating experience, speckled with comedy, both cerebral and absurd. In the newsroom segment, for example, Blanchett the news anchor concludes part of a speech about cyber culture and misinformation before crossing live to herself as a reporter standing in the rain. “Cate, how can we go forward, when action is to watch action… when discourse is opinion?” she asks. Reporter Blanchett responds: “Well, Cate, perhaps all this could be dealt with if man were not facing a black hole…”
One of Rosefeldt’s tricks to keep the material captivating is to create a strange interplay between what we see and hear, recontextualising relatable environments into intensely performative spaces. We’re accustomed to seeing a dinner table, and we’re accustomed to hearing prayers, at least in the movies. But we’re not used to having this setting combined with a speech (from Swedish artist Claes Oldenburg) about art, dripping with weird prose: “I am for the art of sweat that develops between crossed legs. I am for the art of dead birds. I am for the art of bar-babble…”
Ditto for a primary school classroom: we’re not used to seeing children absorbing proclamations about art and philosophy. Here Blanchett plays a teacher delivering film-themed manifestos, such as the fifth rule in Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking, which begins “nothing is original” and goes on to encourage artists to “steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination”. Inserting these manifestos into such settings gives them an air of relatability, encouraging us to empathise with the language by removing them from the textbook or ivory tower.
But Rosefeldt’s ultimate trick, the ace up his sleeve, is of course his star. By now you’ve probably seen celebrity deepfake videos featuring the likes of Tom Cruise. Perhaps Cate Blanchett can be viewed as one of the original, “real” deepfakes: a fascinating, nearly shamanic performer and a marvel of manipulation and impersonation.
Tár arrives in Australian cinemas January 26. Manifesto can be streamed on Prime Video