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Review: TÁR

October 13, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Todd Field’s triumphant return to directing after a sixteen year hiatus following his 2006 film Little Children, TÁR is one of those films that quietly holds us in its grip for the entire 158 minute running time.

This is a brilliantly made slow-burn film from writer-director Field, that has so many layers and themes to unpack, as it plays into the current zeitgeist in such nuanced, thought-provoking ways. At the centre of it all is an incredible performance from Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, the ruthless conductor that gives the film its name.

Lydia is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who is working on a recording of Mahler’s 5th symphony, and we quickly surmise that she is a revered figure within the classic music world. The film opens with her being interviewed on stage by the New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik (playing himself).

Gopnik starts by listing her prestigious accomplishments as a classical music composer (including being an EGOT winner), as Lydia’s assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) waits for her in the wings, closely monitoring the list he is reciting to make sure he gets it right. What ensues is an extended conversation scene that serves as an interesting and unconventional way to introduce the title character, and actually plays into the film’s unique narrative structure without feeling like straight exposition.

From here, TÁR simply drops us into her carefully constructed world, leaving us to piece things together as Field teases out more information as we go along. Lydia lives in Berlin with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic), in a fortress-like apartment with cold, concrete walls that perfectly evoke the atmosphere of the film. She is a towering figure in her field, but there are hints of discontent from some in her orbit, and a brewing scandal involving a former student that challenges her iron-grip over the orchestra.

Working in themes about obsession and an artist’s fall from grace, Field has crafted an absorbing, multilayered character study that doesn’t seek to let us off easy. This is one of the first movies to fully grapple with the phenomenon of cancel culture, the #MeToo movement, and the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the arts, in a way that feels natural and never forced. Field seeks to provoke thought in the audience as he takes a scalpel to these themes, with the film challenging us as it goes along. Can Lydia’s apparent brilliance be appreciated without excusing her toxic behaviour? Field doesn’t absolve her of her sins, and these shades of grey are precisely the point.

Sub this fictional character for any “problematic” real artist and you get the main thesis of TÁR; Field is taking on the increasing inability that many have in separating art from troubled artist, largely fuelled by trends on social media. In one tour-de-force scene early on, Lydia challenges one of the students in her musicology class, a self-identified “BIPOC pansexual” named Max (Zetphan Smith-Gneist), who glibly dismisses the music of Bach because the composer himself was “misogynistic.” It’s not about the man, she argues, but Bach’s music that has transcended time and even him as a person (and she is right, obviously, regardless of how people react to her methods of proving this point).

Lydia Tár (a self-professed “Uhaul Lesbian”) is written to be an incredibly challenging character, and watching Blanchett breathe life into her is nothing short of mesmerizing. Not only does she perfectly deliver every word of Field’s acid-tongued, at times surprisingly witty dialogue, but this is a full-bodied performance as well; observe the way she commands an orchestra through wild, animated gestures, with the camera framing her from below so her figure towers over the screen. A queer female character as interesting and complex as this is also refreshing and exciting to see.

The film, too, forces us to pay attention. Field’s script doesn’t fill in every blank, instead giving viewers enough credit to piece things together as the film unfolds. Characters are mentioned in dialogue who we will only meet later on, and seemingly mundane little details are shown that will come to have deeper meaning. It’s a formally and structurally daring work that finds Field playing with concepts of time (in addition to being knowledgeable about music theory, a key theme of his screenplay is the command that conductors have over time); some scenes are extended conversations that play out in full, while other moments jump ahead, leaving elements of backstory purposely hazy.

The result is a film that is, dare I say, almost Kubrickian in its presentation (Field incidentally had an acting role in Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut), from the precise editing by Monika Willi to the carefully composed images of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister. The sound design allows for long stretches of quiet that are intruded by background noises and thunderous orchestral cues, working in stirring elements of a surprisingly sparsely used musical score by the Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. It all works to create a unique audio-visual experience, paced at nearly three hours in a way that is more akin to a European art film than the typical American movie.

Between his 2001 debut feature In the Bedroom, his sophomore film Little Children, and now TÁR, Field has shown himself to be a filmmaker with complete command over his craft. This is a complex, almost operatic character study that completely enraptures us in its world, building to a final coda that provides deeper meaning as it reimagines the themes of the story through a cascading crescendo of images. The cumulative effect of the film, and Blanchett’s magnificent performance, is appropriately stunning.

TÁR opens in limited release in Toronto on October 14th, and expands to Vancouver and Montreal on October 21st. It’s being distributed by Focus Features.

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