New York 2022 Review: TAR, Fallen Maestro in Todd Field's Remarkable Film

Cate Blanchett stars in a new film by director Todd Field, his first in 16 years.

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
New York 2022 Review: TAR, Fallen Maestro in Todd Field's Remarkable Film

I’m sure parallels between conducting and directing were not lost in Todd Field when he conceived the idea for Tár.

With the film, he breaks a 16-year hiatus after the critical success of his dark suburban melodramas (In the Bedroom and Little Children) and proves himself to be a maestro, by directing, producing, and writing a film about a famed conductor, getting great performances out of great international talents.

I’ve been closely following Field's career trajectory, as he was supposed to adapt and direct Jonathan Franzen’s Purity as a Showtime miniseries, since that book has been my favorite of the last decade. And I was sad to learn the news when it didn’t materialize. But with Tár, he presents himself incontrovertibly to be Hollywood’s best kept secret.

Talking about gender equality in the face of sexual misconduct in the social media era, Field's biting and grandiose character study Tár is at once current in its sexual politics and old-fashioned in the rise and fall narrative of its subject. The film's astute observation of today's social climate and brisk pacing reminds me very much of David Fincher's The Social Network (but not its Adderall-induced choppy editing). But unlike Fincher's precisely timed zeitgeist Facebook saga, which was geared mainly toward millennials, where everything felt like kids-playing-in-adults’-clothes, Tár, heavily relying on the strength of Cate Blanchett's towering performance, feels very much a grown-up film.

Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is first seen nodding off on a private jet. Someone is recording her with their phone while texting. These first frames of the movie sets the somewhat ominous tone of what’s to come.

Maestro Tár is one of the select few EGOT winners -- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards recipients -- and a resident conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She divides her time between New York and Berlin, gives interviews, teaches at Julliard, drives her kid to school, takes meetings with her mentor and fellow conductors in fancy restaurants and hotel rooms. She is preparing live music recordings of the much coveted piece within classical music circles, Mahler's 5th Symphony.

Field is quick to establish the ecosphere of the famed figure’s lifestyle: a Porsche, a private jet, a big cement architectural house in Berlin, which she shares with a famed violinist, Sharon (Nina Hoss, Barbara, Phoenix), and their adopted pre-teen daughter Olive. The lengthy TV interview she gives in the beginning also greatly reveals her public persona: a well-educated and well-traveled woman, how she broke the ceiling of the white male-dominant conducting world, and how she learned to appreciate music from her mentor Leonard Bernstein. But perhaps being modest, she doesn't see herself as a trailblazer. 'Being a woman' was neither disadvantageous or beneficial to her success.

Another revealing, lengthy scene takes place at her Julliard classroom where she teaches young students. She mercilessly scolds a young man, who identifies himself as an BIPOC LGBTQ, for refusing to play Bach because he sees Bach as a white male misogynist who sired 20 children from several different women. She makes a point that it's not the musician's private life but the music he produced that matters, which transcends gender, political, cultural, and even temporal boundaries.

It takes a long while, but the elegant, graceful, and glacial façade of Lydia sees little cracks appearing. There’s an early indication that Lydia is suffering from paranoia. She can’t sleep easily in either of her houses -- the big house she shares with Sharon, and the small dilapidated flat she has kept since her early Berlin days for work and/or for secret rendezvous -- because she hears noises in the middle of the night. She feels the presence that some one is looking at her. She hears unseen woman screaming for murder in her jogging route in the woods.

The arrival of Olga, a young Russian Cello protégé, and Lydia's favoritism toward her also raises few eyebrows among the orchestra members. Surely young Olga is very talented and deserves the spot as a new cellist in the orchestra. But her incredibly obvious and almost creepy affection on display irks even her most ardent supporters, including Sharon, who stood by her all these years. Is Lydia’s self-deprecating U-Haul lesbian joke just another façade?

Her trusty assistant Francesca (Nóemie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is unhappy with how Lydia handles the suicide of the pupil, whom they both obviously had affections for. After finding out Francesca still corresponded with the girl prior to her death, Lydia passes her up as her assistant conductor. Francesca soon disappears without any notice.

In the center of it all is Blanchett in a blistering and physical performance. It’s a showy and hammy role specifically written for her by Field. Lydia Tár is just as much a juicy role for an actress to play as Daniel Plainview is for male actors. It’s a role that requires confidence and authority that no other actresses in her generation possesses.

Blanchett is particularly suited for the role specifically because she was never young in her film career. It’s because she was always old. She has never been an ingenue. This is why she is perfect as a predatory older woman who can be just as ignorant and arrogant in her behavior as any man in power. It’s also her dedication to the role -- learning to speak German, how to play the piano, and learning how to conduct -- that is truly impressive.

The long epilogue of the film and Blanchett’s performance as she confronts the sexual degradation is heartbreaking.

Field has really achieved something remarkable with Tár. It’s one of those big character-driven films that is rare to be made nowadays. With its mesmerizing closeups and Blanchett’s commanding performance, the film is spectacular on the big screen. Go see it big.

After Venice and New York Film Festival premieres, Tár opens in theaters Friday, October 7 via Focus Features.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com

Tr

Director(s)
  • Todd Field
Writer(s)
  • Todd Field
Cast
  • Cate Blanchett
  • Noémie Merlant
  • Nina Hoss
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Cate BlanchettNina HossNóemie MerlantTárTodd FieldNoémie MerlantDramaMusic

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