Film Review: Tár
Director: Todd Field
Standard Film Company and EMJAG Productions
In Theaters 10.21
Now that Hollywood has started making films examining the proliferation of #metoo, accountability and so-called “cancel culture,” asking questions about right and wrong, as well as how we as a society and as individuals should address the worst actions of ourselves and others. Todd Field’s new film, Tár, which stars Cate Blanchett, is the latest to beg the question of whether you can ask these questions without also asking—is this really the person I want to hear from?
Tár is a portrait of a fictional iconic musician Lydia Tár, (two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett), following her from the heights of her career as an EGOT-winning composer, teacher, author and conductor for a major orchestra in Germany. As Lydia prepares for a highly anticipated performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, this gifted and precise musician finds that her skills at conducting her own life aren’t as stellar she thought they were, as questions begins to arise about Lydia’s behavior with her students, sexual indiscretions and possible abuse of power. These questions, which quickly become allegations, threaten Lydia’s relationship with her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss, Phoenix), and daughter, Petra (Mila Bogjevic), as well as Lydia’s career—as someone who has risen to such astounding heights, Lydia Tár is wholly unprepared for the possibility of a free fall.
Blanchett is one one of the most extraordinary actors of our time, and possibly of all time, and Tár could potentially win a third Oscar for her stunning portrayal of this fascinating character. That being said, while it’s not quite in the same league as the sheer awkwardness of The Last Duel being written by and starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who have disavowed Harvey Weinstein but whose past connections to this monster still hang over them, it’s hard to escape the fact that Blanchett won her Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine, which was written and directed by Woody Allen, many years after allegations of molestation had been made against him but several years before Hollywood decided that it was a problem.
I have to be clear that I’m not making any judgements against Blanchett for choosing to work with a celebrated director whose record for leading actresses to Oscar wins and superstar status is unparalleled in the industry. However, it’s hard to listen to the character she portrays mockingly and pompously humiliate a student in front of her entire class for intimating that an artist’s self destructive behavior should have an impact on how their art is viewed without wondering if she agrees.
In some ways, this also works in favor of Tár, as this is a film that looks at hard questions without trying to provide definitive answers, and while the film follows Lydia up close and personal from one scene to the next, the narrative is distanced enough to keep us unsure what exactly the character is thinking much of the time. Of course, there’s also the fact that Todd Field worked with Stanley Kubrick and counts the legendary auteur, Machiavvellian manipulator and caustic, self-serving abuser as one as one his greatest influences—which is quite apparent in his directing style—looming over the question of Tár’s artistic and sociological agendas at all times. I’m inclined to give Field the same degree of “carte blanchett” in regards to holding who he has worked with in the past against him, and yet there’s no getting around that it makes for a lot to take in. Still, Tár ultimately works as an exploration of self-destructive behavior, hubris, and the consequences of one’s worst actions precisely because it is such a complex, and the film chooses to explore it without spoon-feeding you any conclusions.
Tár is exquisitely staged and photographed, with cinematographer Florian Hoffmiester giving the film an almost sterile look that adds to the Kubrick comparison, but is quite effective at contrasting between the meticulously neat, organized and un-tarnishable image that Lydia tries to convey and the dirt that she assumes no one will ever see. Field makes great use of long takes that allow Blanchett’s sublime characterization to stay organic and in-the-moment, though when he does use more quick-cutting and money shots—such as gorgeous low angle of the maestra conducting a symphony, recalling Chernabog summoning the demons in the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Disney’s Fantasia, perhaps foreshadowing Lydia’s own mistaken belief that she has control of her own demons. Field’s screenplay is rather talky, and anyone going into the film needs to come prepared for lengthy discussions on art, art history and musical theory that could easily seem pretentious or dull in the wrong hand, though it all serves to create the setting and the character that is at the heart of the story.
Tár is a bit longer than it needs to be, and Field’s dry approach isn’t going to work for everyone, but it’s a bold, intelligent and provocative film, and both the art and the artists themselves make for the basis for an interesting discussion. If you love great music and great acting, Tár hits all the right notes. –Patrick Gibbs
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