Review: Tár

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Todd Field

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Sophie Kauer, Nina Hoss

The world has grown more conscious of abuses. Abuses of power, learned habits passed down from prior generations, as well as the environments that fail to challenge such patterns. For the powerful, the privileged and the established, this new era of reckoning – of culpability – presents a genuine threat. What was once transactional is now something for which you can be held accountable. For renowned and seasoned orchestra conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) ‘cancel culture’ and its advocates are to be sneered at and dismissed as a new and reductive form of conservatism. It’s a debate that rages on and on and on across the world, and especially online, where the battle lines have been long drawn. Yet an endless stalemate persists.

Working with the Berlin Philharmonic and living in the city with her partner, violinist and concertmaster Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), and her daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), Lydia has a full schedule. She’s entertaining a Q&A in service of her new book, guest teaching a graduate’s masterclass, and getting stuck into the first rehearsals for an upcoming grand production of Mahler’s Fifth. Through these career-driven interactions writer/director Todd Field gradually draws together a character portrait. A damning depiction of a staunch elitist with grave – even predatory – tendencies toward control and manipulation of those around her. Lydia uses her intellect and verbosity to belittle those whom she has judged as inferior, while exerting a magnetic sense of power that keeps those who might question her in check.

Tár, then, is a timely (ach!) interrogation of a ‘type’ that might readily be transferred to the inner workings of any industry. In the sphere of classical music, she is an equivalent to the much publicised Harvey Weinstein; a parallel one imagines many Hollywood insiders grasping as the film does its rounds For Your Consideration. Field’s film is an actor’s dream, a fiery showcase for Blanchett, but a slippery and a-typical kind of prestige picture.

Field appeared famously as pianist Nick Nightingale in Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, and one senses the imprint of Stanley’s mannerisms and philosophies all over Tár, even though Field takes pains not to overtly imitate the late master’s visual style. Still, Kubrick is there in the film’s relative detachment, it’s long and exacting takes, and the sense of an hermetically sealed, internalised Berlin. The city is largely absent from the film, which hunkers down in cavernous auditoriums or inhospitable apartments like the one Lydia keeps with her partner and child, which looks like the barely-renovated husk of a multi-storey car park. The chilly concrete walls reflect a comparable rugged toughness in the woman, and Tár is a long and often quiet viewing experience. But, to the credit of all involved, a grimly absorbing one.

Field beds us in with long scenes in these rooms, so we’re some way in before the cracks start appearing in Lydia’s perfectly hewn façade. The suicide of a former student – and, one is urged to assume, lover – starts a chain reaction of events that loose Lydia from the control she seemed to have so thoroughly secured. But if you’re assuming Tár will follow the template of bombastic psychological thrillers like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (for example), then you may find yourself thrown for a loop. Field stands his ground, maintains his steely pacing, digs further into a precision soundscape of barely audible atonal distractions that keep Lydia obsessed and insomniac. Disturbing events across the hallway at her writer’s retreat have the effect of feeling like eerie portents of death or doom, and yet for all its oppression, Tár is peppered with some riotously dark humour. Blanchett and Hoss worked with coaches so that they could render performances with piano and violin respectively, and the movie’s comedic showstopper may well prove to be “Apartment for Sale” as performed by a vitriolic Lydia on a wheezing accordion.

Tár

Even when Tár steps out of its rooms, it still remains cavernous. Scenes take place within cars travelling inside sprawling tunnels. One detour bracingly close to horror territory finds Lydia lost in a derelict labyrinth that feels as though it’s beneath Berlin. This use of environment and the consequential obliteration of sky and of space maintains an aura of oppression, just as Field provokes us to ponder the environments that helped create Lydia, who at one point refers to herself as Petra’s father.

This masculine persona – far from the stereotypical ‘butch’ or any particularly literal transgender reading – speaks of a woman making a name for herself in a male-dominated sector (something addressed directly in the long and erudite Q&A that opens the picture). A late visit to her childhood home provides further elusive clues. Are Lydia’s failings, then, learned from those who taught her along the way? And are her toxic tendencies the perpetuation of these previously-seen, now outdated psychopathologies that she has absorbed as methods of surviving in a patriarchal profession? Consciously or subconsciously, she has set in motion a cycle of behaviour that is fast running out of track.

After meticulously building Lydia’s world, inhabiting it with densely worded and professional dialogue, the speed at which Field undoes things seems almost bracing. But even here the crescendos aren’t as seismic or as satiating as one might expect. Even the film’s biggest outburst – the one threatened in many of the teasers and trailers – ultimately feels compromised, curtailed, lacking in any comforting resolution. There is justice, of a kind. And a finale that provokes one to wonder just how fascinating a follow-on investigation into this world might be. But Tár also feels as cocooned as its characters. A unique piece of work, one prone to feelings of pompous austerity, but which concurrently mocks such preening. It’s a career high for Blanchett (flanked by the solid work of Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Mark Strong and others), but also a monolithic calling card for Todd Field, one that doesn’t take itself lightly. But then, it doesn’t deserve to be taken lightly either.

9 of 10

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