Synopsis: Set in the international world of Western classical music, an exceptionally detailed portrait of a Promethean artist eventually hoisted on her own petard
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
Director: Todd Field
Running Length: 158 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The power is in the approach. Knowing Tár was created by writer/director Todd Field for Cate Blanchett helps to clear away all of the discussions going in and analysis after the fact centered around phrases that begin “If Tár were told from a male perspective,” or “Had Tár been played as a male.” Homing in on Field’s intent to tell and expressly communicate this perspective gives weight to his film, making it unique among his contemporaries. Further, it elevates the work Blanchett and her costars are doing.
It’s essential to keep this in mind when considering a viewing of Tár because it’s not one to be taken lightly. A commitment to focus on the words, sounds, and textures brought forth by the production will produce the maximum return for the viewer. I can understand why there’s been such a concerted effort to get critics into theaters to see it on the most iant screen possible, too. Like the top blockbuster, this is Cinema (yes, that’s with a capital “C”) but one that throws you for a loop in different ways than you could imagine.
The moment we enter the world of the film, it’s very good to be Lydia Tár. The first-ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, she’s an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-winning composer (one of the select few living EGOTs), author, teacher, shrewd businesswoman, and connoisseur of the finer things in life. She’s also an ego-driven narcissist who indulges in affairs with younger women while her partner looks the other way back home in Germany. Stringing along a devoted protégé with promises of a shot at becoming her assistant conductor, she’s not-so-secretly unwilling to let other women down the path she blazed.
As she prepares the Berlin musicians to record a final piece by Mahler during a period of heightened stress, her personal and professional life collides and begins to crumble. Accusations of impropriety, forever embedded in the public consciousness after the #MeToo movement, begin to follow her and eat away at the glass castle she’s formed around an empire that hasn’t come without tremendous sacrifice. Genius turns to obsession, and control becomes an unwieldy creature she can’t tame or keep time with.
If I’m being sincere, I found Tár to be hard to access for much of its first hour, and I started to worry that all of the good notices I’d heard had been the result of group festival fever. I’ll love Blanchett in whatever she does, but there’s a robotic emptiness to Lydia Tár at the beginning caught me off guard. Field runs the closing credits at the start of the film, purposely highlighting the art and artists involved first. That’s close to four minutes of blackness followed by an exposition of Lydia’s career backstory, delivered via an onstage interview with Adam Gopnick (the real one) from the New Yorker. Feeling more recitative than performative, Blanchett’s Tár was going to be a tough nut to crack.
After sitting with the movie long after it ended, you realize how intentional all of this is, how Lydia has given these same answers countless times, been asked about similar sources of inspiration, or her career trajectory. Reserving her personal life as her own, she saves the warmth and varied intonation of her speaking for those she deems worthy. As viewers, we know this because we see it over the next two hours. It’s in her tender moments with Sharon (Nina Hoss, The Contractor) and their daughter (Mila Bogojevic). It’s the small kindness she offers as a reward to assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and it’s in the flirtatious edge she imparts toward a new cellist (Sophie Kauer) that becomes a distraction and consequence on every other relationship she’s juggling.
Unsurprisingly, Blanchett (Nightmare Alley) is magnificent, and the role is another feather she can add to a cap ready to take flight by this point. The film reaches its peak slightly before she does, so we’re left to enjoy the afterburn of her work almost as an extended epilogue. Few actresses could hold onto an audience in this way, and it’s a credit to Blanchett that she does. As towering as Blanchett is, Hoss contributes mesmerizing work as her better half. It’s a quiet performance that’s scant on dialogue, but Hoss does so much with her silent expressions that an entire conversation often happens between the two actresses absent of speech.
At close to three hours, Tár is a bundle-up and hunker-down experience that is rewarding for more than just the art house crowd or those with a subscription to the symphony. It’s for anyone that has followed the political landscape of the last five years and is invested in future change. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot several visual cues Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Antlers) have included. Tiny slivers of fractions of glances that let you inside Lydia’s mind. I’ll see the film again for that alone to catch what I missed.