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‘Tár’ Review: Cate Blanchett Orchestrates Her Own Destruction

Venice: "Little Children" director Todd Field returns to screens with one of the most exciting new American films in years.

Cate Blanchett in Tár

“TÁR”

Courtesy of Focus Features

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“TÁR” is so much more than the Great American Movie about “cancel culture” — a phrase that it humiliates with every movement — but this dense and difficult portrait of a female conductor’s fall from grace also demands to be seen through that singular lens from its very first shot. Todd Field’s thrilling, deceptively austere third film exalts in grabbing the electrified fence of digital-age discourse with both hands and daring us to hold onto it for 158 minutes in the hopes that we might ultimately start to feel like we’re shocking ourselves.

“TÁR” is a provocation full of slow-motion suckerpunches and the driest of laughs (even its accented title is a knowingly pretentious in-joke) and yet Field seems as uninterested in trolling his liberal audience as he is in patronizing them. That sounds like a tough needle to thread for a film so micro-targeted that it opens with a long, long scene of its subject onstage for an expository conversation with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who needs no introduction.

But the “Little Children” maestro’s first movie in 16 years — and the only original screenplay he’s ever directed — isn’t quite the ultra-mordant satire you might imagine if someone just told you where its final scene takes place. On the contrary, Field has come back to us with a savage yet acutely sincere character study that’s slathered in a million shades of gray. “TÁR” tells the story of a trailblazing woman whose aspiration to embody the grandeur of the past makes her vulnerable to the uniquely modern pitfalls of the present. The film is every bit as brilliant and implosive as she is.

“TÁR” boasts the sweep and frustrated gravitas of a project that Field has been working on since the day he stepped out of the spotlight more than a decade ago, and yet it tells a story that could only have taken shape during the last stretch of his absence. Fearless in a way that allows its heroine to seem blithely unaware as to what she’s supposed to be afraid of, this is the kind of film that could only be made by someone who’s been watching the world burn from the sidelines for so long — long enough that he doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t play with fire himself, and from a distance that allows him to keep his attention focused squarely on the nature of what’s fueling it.

“TÁR” will probably gross all of $57 at the box office (give or take), but everyone who buys a ticket will be inspired to destroy their own German orchestra from the inside out, or at least write a thinkpiece about why. Let’s not hold that against one of the boldest and most exciting new American movies I’ve seen in years.

Following in the massive footsteps of creative giants like Scott Rudin and Tracy Jordan, Lydia Tár is one of the only living people to have won an EGOT. Of course, whatever awards might crowd the mantel of the brutalist apartment that Lydia shares with her partner/concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter in Berlin are merely progress markers on the New York-born conductor’s fated path towards the sort of immortality reserved for the legends of her field.

Legends such as Gustav Mahler, whose fifth symphony Lydia will soon record with the German orchestra she’s led for the last seven years, cementing her legacy as the greatest maestro of her time. Leonard Bernstein, who taught Lydia everything he knew about keeping time, and defying it. Johann Sebastian Bach, an über-demanding asshole whose music endures despite the fact that it’s become symbolic of the classical world’s exclusionary whiteness.

Lydia’s heroes, we note, are all men, whereas she is a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” who styles herself after Céline Sciamma (it would seem), eviscerates her enemies with a single flex of her razor-sharp cheekbones, and refuses to make a “gender spectacle” out of her well-earned success as the world’s first and only female conductor of a major orchestra. We can only imagine how brilliant a woman like Lydia had to be in order to fly so close to the heavens — or what she had to do in order to stay there for so long — but “TÁR” will depict in exacting detail what the world might look like to someone who can’t see beyond the sun in their eyes.

Blanchett makes for a magnificent 21st century Icarus. Expertly weaponizing her inimitable gravitas away from art and towards predatory self-preservation instead, the “Carol” star commands the movie’s lengthy and unbroken scenes as if she were conducting them herself; as Lydia gradually loses her ability to modulate the tempo of the world around her, “TÁR” finds a sickening pleasure in the dissonance between a spiraling character and an actor in perfect control of her instrument.

TÁR

“TÁR”

Focus Features

We’ve seen Blanchett play women on the verge of a nervous breakdown before, but she’s never obliterated herself on screen with such concussive force. The controlled demolition of a performance she delivers here provides a more nuanced (and cautiously sympathetic) interpretation of the social dynamics behind the #MeToo movement than any male actor or character might be able to offer. It’s because of Blanchett that “TÁR” is able to elevate the uselessly outmoded paradigm of separating the art from the artist into the visceral portrait of an artist separating from herself.

Lydia is a harsh and unsparing character whose flesh is probably closer to shark cartilage than skin, but the power of her genius has been corrupted by the genius of her power, and we can’t help but wince at how earnestly she believes that each of those things is required to complete the other — operating in sync like the hands of a clock, or those of a conductor with similar precision. Actually, identifying it as a conscious belief isn’t quite right; it would be more accurate to describe Lydia’s mindset as a side effect of the system that has consecrated her success. The system that enforces the same hierarchy Lydia’s fame would seem to disrupt, and the system that has convinced her that she can only affirm her status by abusing it at every opportunity.

Needless to say, that doesn’t bode very well for the fellowship that Linda and investment banker/wannabe conductor Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) have created to support female musicians in the classical music community. One of those young musicians — a twentysomething violinist named Krista Taylor — seems to have had a particularly traumatic experience under Lydia’s intimate tutelage, and has been hounding the conductor with cryptic pleas for attention that Lydia doesn’t want to hear (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” breakout Noémie Merlant plays Lydia’s full-time assistant and part-time accomplice, feeding her boss little white pills and silencing her victims in exchange for the orchestra promotion she’s implicitly been promised).

Lydia protects herself with the aura of her own perfection, insisting that her pursuit of kavanah — a Hebrew word referring to the concentrated mental state required for ritualistic devotion — excuses any collateral damage that might befall the “robots” who get in her way. She is Moses standing on the mountaintop and bringing the word of God down to the masses, a gifted conduit for a message that has long been defined by its means of delivery.

It’s a role that Field illustrates across the span of the stunning early sequence shot in which Lydia humiliates a jittery BIPOC Juilliard student for his refusal to play the music of a racist dead white man like Bach. “Don’t be so eager to be offended,” Lydia jaws at him from her seat at the piano, “the narcissism of small differences leads to conformity.” As with many of this strict but unfussy film’s most breathless scenes, the tension doesn’t come from a tug-of-war between two competing perspectives, but rather from how they constrict together and choke each other to death.

“TÁR”

On the one hand, Lydia argues that a single piece can be transformed by an infinite array of interpretations; she plays a simple melody in three widely different ways, providing one of the precious few moments in which anyone in this movie is actually seen creating music (Field usually cuts away with a fetishistic sense of deprivation, edging his audience towards the third act climax). On the other hand, she’s also reaffirming the age-old notion that art’s power is inextricable from the power that we assign it. That art can’t be preserved if we don’t allow it to ossify, and vice-versa. “They can’t all conduct, honey,” Lydia coos at her daughter much later in the story. “It’s not a democracy.”

In context, Lydia’s argument has its own suffocating merits, but Field shoots it in a single long-take so that he can chop it up on social media after Krista’s suicide ignites a viral firestorm over the conductor’s alleged misconduct. Lydia demands to know where Twitter was when Schopenhauer threw some random old woman down a flight of stairs, but power has always been a devil’s bargain, and everyone in “TÁR” is forced to keep their own receipts for the transactional relationships that hold our world together.

Where a lesser version of this story might have trended towards victim-blaming — or been so afraid to do so that it bent itself into frustratingly didactic shape — “TÁR” crescendos by further aligning itself with Lydia as it goes along. The film doesn’t take her side, per se, but rather embraces her subjectivity until even the most crucial story beats are played off-screen just because Lydia refuses to hear them.

That slow-motion unraveling is transposed against the conductor’s relationship with a rising young cellist in her orchestra (first-time British actor Sophie Kauer, instantly believable as the Russian Olga Metkina). The dynamic between them unfolds like a reprise of Lydia’s tryst with Krista, echoes of which only grow louder in Lydia’s ears over the course of a movie that splits the difference between the drab psychic pall of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” and the unsmiling dreaminess of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” — in which Field himself played jazz pianist Nick Nightingale. Nothing says “Time’s Up” quite like the ticking metronome that Lydia hears in the middle of the night.

The predatory intentionality of Lydia’s approach is undeniable, regardless of Olga’s reaction to it, but even more overt is how these women don’t have any other way to interact with each other. The institution that brings them together is so inflexibly hierarchical that every chair is assigned a specific importance based on its distance from the podium, and any hint of desire between the people who sit in them — personal or professional, appropriate or otherwise — is tainted by its proximity to power. To that point, “TÁR” is utterly convincing in how it depicts the gossip and politics behind an elite orchestra, with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s unobtrusive score helping to smooth over the seams even as Lydia comes apart on screen.

But it’s the undoing that makes “TÁR” such a tour de force, this long and patient movie growing less abstract and more unflinchingly personal as Lydia reaches the end of her rope. Oppressive sheets of gray sky and colorless slabs of concrete — only punctuated by text bubbles and errant glimpses of ripe fruit during the first two hours — eventually give way to the unexpected hum of hot neon lights. The last stages of this story (and its smirking humdinger of a final shot) are velveted by a soft glow that feels universes removed from the brutal rigidity of its build-up, and, with impressive boldness, they manage to rescue “TÁR” from the same cynicism that once seemed certain to smother it.

“TÁR” might be seen as a social lighting rod upon its initial release, if it’s seen at all. But it will endure because of the strange notes it strikes amid a world of white noise; because of how unflinchingly it watches Lydia “obliterate herself before the music,” and how convincingly it entertains the remote possibility that she might find a way to hear herself in it again.

Grade: A

“Tár” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on Friday, October 7.

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