Cate Blanchett turns in another awards-worthy performance in this powerful, complicated and compelling drama about a cancelled conductor.
January 20, 2023
The least surprising aspect of Tár is also its most essential: Cate Blanchett being as phenomenal as she's ever been, plus more. The Australian Nightmare Alley, Thor: Ragnarok and Carol actor — "our Cate", of course — best be making space next to her Oscars for The Aviator and Blue Jasmine as a result. Well-deserved accolades have been showered her way since this drama about a cancelled conductor premiered at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival (the prestigious event's Best Actress gong was the first of them) and, as the Golden Globes showed, they're not likely to stop till this awards season is over. Blanchett is that stunning in Tár, that much of a powerhouse, that adept at breathing life and complexity into a thorny figure, and that magnetic and mesmerising. Even when she hasn't been at her utmost on rare past occasions or something she's in hasn't been up to her standards — see: Don't Look Up for both — she's a force that a feature gravitates around. Tár is astonishing itself, too, but Blanchett at her finest is the movie's rock, core and reason for being.
Blanchett is spectacular in Tár, and she also has to be spectacular in Tár — because Lydia Tár, the maestro she's playing, earns that term to start with in the film's on-screen world. At the feature's kickoff, the passionate and ferocious character is feted by a New Yorker Festival session led by staff writer Adam Gopnik as himself, with her achievements rattled off commandingly to an excited crowd; what a list it is. Inhabiting this part requires nothing less than utter perfection, then, aka what Tár demands herself, her latest assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, Jumbo), her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss, Shadowplay) and everyone else in her orbit constantly. Strong, seductive, severe, electrifying and downright exceptional, Blanchett nails it. That Lydia can't always do the same, no matter how hard, painstakingly and calculatingly she's worked to ensure that it appears otherwise, is one of the movie's main concerns.
Directing a film for just the third time in 22 years — and the third at all, as well as the first since 2006's Little Children — writer/helmer Todd Field begins Tár with the woman, the myth and the legend. Since the feature's US release, viewers have been known to think that Lydia is an actual person, which has proven instantly memeable, yes, but more importantly is a testament to the detail and potency of the filmmaker's layered script. As Gopnik advises, Tár is a protégé of the one and only (and real) Leonard Bernstein, the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and an EGOT-winner. She has a book in the works, Tár on Tar, and she's soon to record her dream piece, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5. She's not fond of having her successes ascribed to battling sexism, but she's proud, confident and authoritative talking about her career, field and leap to the top of classical music. Not mentioned in this early celebration, unsurprisingly: the behaviour that'll come back to stalk Lydia, involving her treatment of mentees and students, and cracking her hard-carved place in an elite realm.
With two Academy Award nominations to his name for screenwriting, for both Little Children and his 2001 feature debut In the Bedroom, Field is in his element plotting Tár's intricate and tangled life that just keeps getting more and more knotted — and penning and directing a film that's equally as complicated. Tár is many things and never merely one thing, but it's a psychological character study above all else. As the feature charts its namesake's downfall from the heights that the picture opens with, and unpacks her arrogance and ambition, it unravels Lydia. As it examines her professional dealings and personal bonds, sees transactional connections wherever she goes and shows her scant regard for most folks other than herself (although she'll happily bully a schoolgirl for her young daughter Petra, played by first-timer Mila Bogojevic), the movie chips away at Lydia's carefully established personality and mystique. And, as her standing plummets amid a scandal, and her relationships with it, the film probes and ponders who she truly is anyway — and why.
Is Tár a groomer, predator and liar? A talent who took her lust for triumph too far? A celebrity overly enamoured with her own fame and power? Is she a woman fracturing? Someone literally haunted? An egotist using and emotionally bruising, then getting what she deserves? Tár is too crafty — and well-crafted — a drama to quickly or easily tick most of those boxes for its protagonist, and finds much of its depths (and much of its fuel for Blanchett's performance) in provocatively giving all of the above attention. As Lydia belittles Juilliard kids in showy lectures about JS Bach, grinds first violin Sharon down to just one of her offsiders, capitalises upon Francesca's own conducting dreams, weathers a storm with her past favourite Krista (debutant Sylvia Flote) and throws her current approval towards new Russian cellist Olga (acting newcomer Sophie Kauer), Tár is also as precise at building the world that its titular character dwells in, where her genius and thrall draws in everyone, enables her, and lets Lydia herself believe that everything is excused and even worth it if it results in her art.
Collaborating with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Pachinko), editor Monika Willi (Happy End), costume designer Bina Daigeler (1899), production designer Marco Bittner Rosser (Only Lovers Left Alive) and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker), Field does indeed fashion Tár immaculately. A film of cool hues, firm lines and rich surfaces — Lydia's suits encapsulate the look perfectly — as well as a gripping, tension-dripping beat, it's a film where every choice seen and heard is revealing about its story, central figure and themes. Tár is also a movie of striking scenes revelling in such tightly constructed surroundings, all with Blanchett at their centre. Every choice she makes with her facial expressions and body language, whether Lydia is regaling fans, instructing pupils, pushing aside loved ones or luring in new points of interest, is a compelling, entrancing masterclass.
When Tár picks up the baton, plays the piano, holds court, tries to navigate her own fall and perhaps even orchestrate her own second rise: these moments, whether loud and intense or quiet and contemplative, are hypnotic and loaded, too. But, across a 158-minute duration that never feels that long and shows zero signs of bloat, Field fills his frames with more than just one outstanding player. He could've simply let Blanchett's awards-worthy efforts be Tár's everything alone, and this'd still be captivating, bold and intelligent. Again, there wouldn't be a film this piercing without her, and it rises in tandem with her astounding work. In what's hopefully not his last picture for another decade and a half, however, Field sees what Lydia can't and won't. Casting German acting royalty Hoss and French Portrait of a Lady on Fire standout Merlant, both of whom bring texture, vulnerability and visible signs of pain to their pivotal characters, makes a statement: that no story is one person's only.