Tár: Cate Blanchett's conductor; genius or monster?

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 1, 2022
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Cate Blanchett in 'Tár'
Cate Blanchett in 'Tár'

Cancel culture is again dominating the headlines. Thus, the appearance of the film "Tár" within the last month couldn't be more timely, because this social phenomenon in which a celebrity is ostracized or boycotted after they do or say something inappropriate, is at its center. Can we separate an artist's personal failings from our assessment and appreciation of their creative work?

"Tár" (Focus Features) is an intense and relentless investigation about the fictional orchestral director Lydia Tár (the phenomenal Cate Blanchett) and her downfall. The movie, seemingly centered around music, is really about power.

The film is directed by Todd Field, his first movie in 16 years and only his third feature after the success of "In the Bedroom" (2001) and "Little Children" (2006). Field had spent years trying to get other projects off the ground but they never panned out.

Nina Hoss and Cate Blanchett in 'Tár'  

Dance the masque
Although it takes place over three weeks, "Tár" feels like an exhaustive suffocating day in the life of this exacting woman. The film opens as she is being interviewed by a fawning New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) which is a clever device that mimics a biographical sketch, a talking CV of Tár, is introduced as the preeminent conductor of her generation, leading the Berlin Philharmonic.

We hear a listing of her myriads of accomplishments, as an EGOT, a disciple of Leonard Bernstein (the rare classical titan who became a popular success, a status Tár longs to emulate), a Harvard Ph.D., and author of a memoir "Tár on Tár," destined to be a best seller. She has recorded all of Mahler's symphonies, except the thorny fifth, but is in process of completing it now.

A self-described U-Haul lesbian, in her brilliance, she has clawed herself out of working-class obscurity in a field dominated by men. We sense from the start there is more to her than her Wikipedia-like achievements would suggest.

While teaching a class at Julliard, one of her students identifying himself as a "BIPOC pangender person," rejects Bach because of his misogyny and white privilege. Tár humiliates him, saying, "You want to dance the masque, you must service the composer. You've got to sublimate yourself, your ego. And yes, your identity (to the music)." He calls her a bitch, to which she replies, "Don't be eager to be offended." As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent this is Tár's struggle as well.

Power, predator
Tár lives in an austere bunker-like apartment with her patient wife Sharon (the wonderful Nina Hoss, underused here), a first-chair violinist in the orchestra and concertmaster, with their adopted Syrian daughter Petra. Sharon is constantly reassuring a mood-swinging Tár who seems perpetually perturbed by her. Later in the film, Sharon will bitterly observe that for Tár all her relationships are transactional, useful only for how they contribute to her success. The relationship seems to be a mutual toxic codependency.

Cate Blanchett in 'Tár'  

When Petra is bullied at school by another female six-year-old classmate, Tár threatens her, "I'm Petra's father and I am going to get you," and means it. Tár has a smart assistant, Francesca (Noemie Merlant, exquisite in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"), who follows her every order, cleaning up Tár's messes and because of her loyalty hopes to become her assistant conductor.

Every person in Tár's life meets her needs. She's a sadistic predator, manipulating people to do her bidding. She's so enthralled with her own power and knowing how to exercise it to enhance her career, she seems oblivious to how that same power will plant the seeds of her ruin. She's made the fatal mistake of believing her own hype.

She has wrecked lives and careers, especially young women with whom she apparently has had inappropriate romantic relationships as their mentor. One past protegee Krista, who stalked her —in a satirical twist gives her a copy of Vita Sackville-West's lesbian novel "Challenge"— led Tár to blacklist her. She erases all the email correspondence both on her computer and wants Francesca to do the same, contemptuously dismissing Krista, "She wasn't one of us." We wonder if Francesca may likewise been victimized, perhaps explaining her searing gazes of resentment in unguarded moments.

Krista was preparing to publish an article destroying Tár's reputation. Krista commits suicide and there is an investigation leading to other past indiscretions and the unraveling of Tár's stellar career.

But in spite of this decline, Tár is already grooming another victim for seduction, a young talented dazzling newcomer cellist whom she elevates to play Elgar's "Cello Concerto" at the expense of a more seasoned cellist who's long been waiting for such a career breakthrough. The ending can be seen as both a humiliating comeuppance or a spoof on fame.

The truth is that Tár follows in the path of other great male conductors (the late gay James Levine's sexual misconduct of Metropolitan Opera notoriety comes to mind), exhibiting a similar ruthlessness for the sake of art and a sense of infallibility that one can do as one pleases without any consequences, more than willing to play by men's rules. The film raises the disturbing question of whether there might be something endemic to the grandiose power given to conductors, regardless if they are male or female.

Is the audience to fall in love with a manipulative tyrant or a #MeToo martyr? Do we admire or revile Tár The same qualities that made her a legend in her field are the same ones that bring her to disaster. The film suggests that in order to maintain this level of celebrity one must guard it with a certain level of paranoia.

Career-peak performance
The film is over 2.5 hours long, but is never boring. It plays almost like a thriller, especially in the second half when you aren't sure whether something awful will happen to Tár or if she will do something awful. Can she outfox her persecutors? We never take our eyes off the screen and this fascinating, complex figure. We are enthralled by her expertise and passion, but feel continually on edge since doom appears ever present.

None of this would be possible without the transformational, stupendous, probably career-peak performance of Blanchett. As Tár, she joins Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep as master class actors who disappear into their roles. Anyone else is unimaginable as this character.

Blanchett learned German (fluently) and took conducting lessons for over a year. Her fierce intelligence and dedication flashes throughout her performance. It's inconceivable she won't be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and more than likely she will win her third Academy Award.

The film itself is a probable Best Picture nominee, even though the last half hour feels rushed, confusing, and murky about what is happening, raising more questions than it answers. We watch the plummeting of a genius and her fight to survive at any cost, with only vague clues thrown at us.

To its credit, the film remains nonjudgmental on whether Tár is a monster or not. Do we empathize with or condemn her? It lets the audience decide for itself. The key line revealing who Tár is and why she is in the predicament she finds herself, is when she tells Francesca, "Our only home is the podium," which she extends into her personal life to her detriment.

This is the type of movie you want to see with other people, so afterwards you can have a discussion of it, asking questions like do we judge an artist on their work, their lives, or both. It's a harrowing, claustrophobic, often remote film, for whose craftmanship you have enormous respect more than you love it.

But this slight ambivalence probably expresses how we feel toward Tár herself. What is undeniable is that "Tár," as one of this year's prestige films, has created a contradictory symphonic portrayal of a gifted but distraught goddess/tyrant, like Icarus flying too high to the sun and toppling precipitously to a devastating fall.


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