Arts Review

Manifesto and Army of Shadows: The films of Jean-Pierre Melville, A Film Review by Marc Glassman

Manifesto and Army of Shadows: The films of Jean-Pierre Melville, A Film Review by Marc Glassman featured image

Manifesto and Army of Shadows: The films of Jean-Pierre Melville
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Julian Rosefeldt, director, writer and producer
Starring: Cate Blanchett (in 13 roles)

Julian Rosefeldt, the Austrian filmmaker and installation artist and Cate Blanchett, the iconic actor, have combined their impressive artistic skills to create one of the most fascinating documentaries ever made. Manifesto is a series of brilliant set pieces dedicated to many of the most controversial ideologies ever proposed. With Blanchett acting out the artistic and political philosophies in thirteen quite disparate roles and Rosefeldt generating narratives and environments for each, Manifesto is a work that is more than the sum of its parts.

Rosefeldt and Blanchett were clearly inspired by political and artistic theorists over the past two centuries, who have proposed a multitude of manifestos in brave attempts to create paths that people could support in attempts to make—or at least perceive—a better world. From Communism to Fascism to Neo-Liberalism, politicians have dominated major parts of the globe with their ideologies. As for artists, everything from Dadaism through Abstract Expressionism to Situationism has been the favourite philosophy of the day.

In Manifesto, Blanchett shows off her astonishing range, playing a variety of different parts in scenarios that allow her to pontificate about wildly diverse aesthetic ideals. She’s particularly effective in three roles: as a CEO at an art function expressing her faith in Abstract Expressionism while blowing air kisses and offering appropriate friendly gestures to her major donors; playing two roles, as an officious news reader asking for a philosophical report on Conceptual Art from her hesitant weather analyst (both named Cate); and as an American Southern fundamentalist mom offering Grace to Pop Art before her family can dig into dinner. (It’s a very nice touch that Blanchett’s three boys and real-life partner, theatre director and writer Andrew Upton, act as her family in the Pop Art scene).

As texts, Rosefeldt uses a wide range of writers including Marx/Engels on Communism; von Trier on his Dogme 95 film ideal: Tristan Tzara on Dadaism; Wyndham Lewis on Vorticism: Kazimir Malevich on Suprematism; Alexander Rodchenko on Constructivism; Wassily Kandinsky on Abstract Expressionism, Guillaume Apollinaire on Surrealism, Robert Venturi on complexity in architecture and Guy Debord on Situationism.

Rosefeldt and Blanchett’s Manifesto was initially a filmed art installation, which played in Athens, Berlin and New York. The response to the piece was so positive, it was decided that Manifesto would be made into a film. Given its artistic history, Manifesto was never going to get away from its roots in avant-garde art practice.

For some—and I’m one of them—the fact that Manifesto is experimental and cerebral is not a problem. Some filmgoers will go to see Cate Blanchett, expecting a plot driven film, and be disappointed. My only disappointment is that two great artists have spent so much time on manifestos, which tend to be one-note pieces of literature, full of great one-liners but lacking in proper essayist flow. Blanchett and Rosefeldt have likely made the best possible film on manifestos; I just wish I enjoyed the form more. Without a doubt, though, Manifesto is a must-see; it’s unlikely that you’ll see something like it ever again.

Army of Shadows: The films of Jean-Pierre Melville
A TIFF Cinematheque Retrospective
Runs from June 30 through August 19
Films include: Army of Shadows; Les enfants terribles; Bob le flambeur; Deux hommes en Manhattan; Le Doulos; The Red Circle; Leon Morin, Priest; Un flic; Le Samourai

Jean-Pierre Melville is a unique figure in French cinema. Along with the much older Jean Renoir and Jean Cocteau, he was one of the few directors that the French New Wave directors Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer embraced as authentic in the 1950s. For many film enthusiasts, Melville became famous for his appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s first masterpiece Breathless (A bout de soufflé), where he plays a film director being interviewed by Jean Seberg and other reporters at the airport. When asked what is his favourite ambition, Melville replies: “To become immortal…and then to die.”

Oddly, that’s exactly what happened to Melville (real name: Grumbach), a renowned Jewish fighter in the French Resistance during World War Two, who hit his stride as a creator of character driven existential noir thrillers in 1956’s Bob le Flambeur only to die, far too quickly, in 1972 at the age of 55.

As a genuine war hero and a Jew, Melville was an outsider, who was never accepted by the French establishment. Denied a permit to become an assistant director in the late ‘40s, Melville made his first films outside the system. With the help of Cocteau, he scored a success with his adaptation of his mentor’s great novel Les enfants terribles and was eventually allowed to make one of the wittiest and best plotted caper films of all time, Bob le Flambeur, about a man who breaks a bank in a casino that he had intended to rob.

Melville hit his highpoint in the ‘60s with a string of hits involving criminals whose code of ethics—loyalty, honour, a sense of family—fought against their desire to oppose the system by acquiring as much illegal money as possible. He created classic films, which had great plots, wonderfully dark atmospheric touches and brilliant characterizations by such actors as Alain Delon (never better than in Melville films), Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani and Lino Ventura.

TIFF Cinematheque will be screening all of Melville finest films—Bob le Flambeur, The Red Circle, Le Doulos, Le Samourai, Leon Morin, Priest and Army of Shadows—over the next month and a half. It’s particularly piquant to see Army of Shadows, Melville’s film about the Resistance, lead off the retrospective. While his early films like Le Doulos and even Deux hommes en Manhattan feature jazz scores and a fair bit of tawdry romances, his later ones are austere and use a minimalist set design.

Army of Shadows, a later film, is almost breathtaking in its simplicity in scenes where members of the Resistance have to learn how to parachute, or far worse, deal with traitors. The film is clearly personal: Army of Shadows recreates Melville’s youth when he fought in the underground against his country’s oppressors. It was a personal project for him and, like all of Melville’s films, deserves to be seen again.

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