Cate Blanchett is a conductor in trouble in Todd Field’s brilliant tale of midlife career collapse
A wonderfully unnerving study of an overconfident power player and the aspirational strivers that encircle and eventually sabotage her, Tár revels in the roiling tensions beneath the placid sheen of civility. Todd Field’s symphonic drama chooses the rarefied world of classical music for a plethora of psychological knife fights. Simmering slights, nuanced needling, and insidious innuendos define the rules of engagement. The stakes? Public humiliation. Your career. Death.
Field’s vessel for this character laceration is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a celebrated orchestra conductor whom The New Yorker just recently dubbed “the most important musical figure of our era.” Tár’s daunting backstory checks all the elitist boxes: Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, ethnographic field work in the Amazon studying indigenous Peruvian music, Leonard Bernstiein as her mentor. She just published a book called Tár on Tár, and her next project will be conducting Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
TÁR ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Todd Field
Written by: Todd Field
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
Running time: 158 min
Adam Gopnik from the New Yorker interviews her on stage, while wealthy patrons pamper her with posh hotel rooms and private jets. But it’s during a masterclass at Julliard where her marbled façade shows a hairline fracture. While pontificating to a handful of students in an impressively austere lecture hall, Tár belittles, cajoles, and inspires in equal measure. She also commits 21st century heresy when she defends the cis white European men who have always dominated the majority of classical music. And she does it as a self-professed “U-Haul lesbian.” One of the attendees, a non-binary person of color, isn’t impressed.
Tár doesn’t care about the messy private lives of her heroes. She focuses on the brilliance of their searching creative work, which has endured precisely because it’s not dogmatic. “It’s always the question that involves the listener,” she says. “It’s not the answer.” The student stridently disagrees. “You’re a fucking bitch,” he spits, and walks out. So much for Bach’s piano sonatas!
As the film slowly reveals Tár’s life, it drops hints that something’s wrong. Phone calls she refuses to answer. An anonymous gift of an early 20th century novel with a strange graphic pattern drawn inside. Odd tics and behavior that suggest Tár struggles with OCD and germophobia. Her domestic life seems harmonious, with musician wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and grade-school daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). But she’s also receptive to a flirtatious young female reporter, and seems to take a keen interest in some of the comely orchestral members she nurtures. Everything, of course, happens with the utmost discretion. Until a twentysomething Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer) seems immune to her advances—and even brusquely gives notes on the musical composition that Tár is struggling to write.
The younger generation is ascendant and fearless; Tár feels her powers slipping, even as she tightens her grip at the helm. And when a former fellow at Tár’s conducting academy commits suicide, her act is the string that starts to unravel Tár’s monolithic legacy—not to mention her own mental health. Death is the film’s specter: Tár even has an invalid old neighbor who so rattles her that she needs to strip naked after an unusually close encounter.
It’s a testament to Field’s filmmaking prowess that he earns the film’s hefty running time; if anything, the resolution feels rushed and truncated, strangely dissonant to the richly deliberate pacing of the first two hours. Instead of Tár fighting back with her fiery, indignant brilliance, she seems to fold quietly into non-denial denials, vague recollections, and haughty bafflement. She even retreats into her true background, and reveals humble roots as well as her opportunistic sense of self re-invention. But how great would it have been to witness Tár’s intellectual alacrity and steely resoluteness in the face of #MeToo’s enduring cancel culture. Even if the outcome were the same, at least her parrying with the most polarizing political issues of the day—with other colleagues, with the boards of trustees, with her own wife—would have made for delicious drama.
Instead, Field seems to be using Tár’s disregard of sexual ethics more as his way to study the inter-personal machinations of elitist institutions. One of the ending’s great revelations is how deeply, and tragically, Tár’s transactional worldview even seeps into her own personal life. But instead of widening his scope to make his film a relevatory indictment of our times, Field narrows his focus and settles instead on the film being a sumptuously told but ultimately straightforward comeuppance cautionary tale of supreme arrogance supremely humbled.
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‘But how great would it have been to witness Tár’s intellectual alacrity and steely resoluteness in the face of #MeToo’s enduring cancel culture.’
I don’t make her for a hero, but she never seems so much of an artist as when she is moving through southeast asia, there but apart, exposed to the noises and chaos, so different from the putatively high state of ‘western’ culture and development of the aristocratic/academic world she had been in. What you took for intellectual alacrity seemed to me to be kind of a pretentious hollow side to her — the movie is subtle where her talk is not — if it is ‘alacrity’, then it still might not be the best impulse.