by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Todd Field
CAST: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Mark Strong, Allan Corduner
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 91% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A renowned composer/conductor’s career and personal life take an unexpected turn after she embarks on a project to make a live recording of a prestigious, difficult symphony by Mahler.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW…BE WARNED]
In his invaluable book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet wrote: “Movies are very powerful. You’d better have a lot to say if you want to run over two hours.”
I found myself remembering that quote as Tár began with three long scenes spanning 35 minutes of running time, in a film that runs 2 hours and 38 minutes. In the first scene, a man interviews Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a prestigious and fiercely intelligent composer/conductor in a field traditionally dominated by men. That scene runs at least ten minutes and is full of esoterica about composers, conducting, music theory, etcetera. It’s wonderfully shot and acted…but despite my fanboy-level of admiration for Cate the Great, I started to wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?”
There is the briefest of breaks. The second long scene takes place in a restaurant as Tár lunches with a colleague who seems interested in conducting as well, but who is not quite at Tár’s level…and she knows it, AND she never quite lets him forget it. This scene is also filled with jargon and musical references that I didn’t quite get, but I found it interesting because here, Tár is no longer “performing” for the interviewer. She’s more herself. And she reveals herself to be, not only a tad self-involved, but also coldly calculating and decisive in her words and actions.
And then…the third scene. Tár is teaching a class in music conducting at Juilliard. In an astonishing unbroken take that lasts at least ten minutes, if not more, she demonstrates a mastery of the subject matter, but again reveals herself to be more overbearing and arrogant than we saw her at the top of the film. One of her male students reveals he doesn’t care for Bach because he was a cis white male whose sexual proclivities resulted in 20-some-odd children. In a wonderfully roundabout way, she asks him what Bach’s personal life has to do with chords and key changes. It’s a brilliant dismantling of so-called “cancel culture,” though I’m not sure how much water her argument holds when it comes to, say, politicians or musicians espousing Nazism. But it’s food for thought.
It’s that third scene that finally hooked me, and I was with Tár the whole rest of the way. It was almost like an overture in three separate movements. Given the subject matter, that can hardly be a coincidence.
I was not a literature major, but to a relative layman like me, Tár resembles nothing less than a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s an intimate story told on a grand stage. A towering figure, powerful, intelligent, passionate, makes questionable decisions based on her ego, her hubris, and her inability, or unwillingness, to allow humility into her life. Writer/producer/director Todd Field (making his first feature film since 2006) shoots his film in what appears to be mostly natural light, lending a Kubrickian feel to virtually every shot. This enhances the film in a way that I can’t describe accurately…you’ll have to watch the movie to see what I mean. The result is a movie that, yes, is “Oscar-bait”, but it’s too easy to dismiss it that way. Tár stayed with me mentally the way only one other movie in the last few years has done: Hereditary. The two could not be more different story-wise, but they both have a marvelous visual quality that, when combined with the dialogue and superlative acting, gives the impression of something pulsing beneath the surface. This is top-notch filmmaking.
Throughout the movie, there are hints that, in spite of (or BECAUSE of) her meteoric rise to the lofty heights of her profession, there were casualties along the way. These casualties seem to be haunting Tár in subtle ways. Early in the film, we get glimpses of a woman with red hair. Who is she? We’re not told; she eventually disappears. Tár receives an anonymous gift that, upon opening, she immediately throws into the trash. What was the inscription? On her morning jog through a tree-filled park, she hears blood-curdling screams, but she is unable to find the source. (Easter egg alert: the screams were actually taken from the soundtrack of The Blair Witch Project…kinda cool.)
As Tár went on, I was continually fascinated, but I found myself coming back to that Lumet quote and asking: What is this movie saying? What is Todd Field getting at? That people in power should be more careful of how they treat others, especially friends and lovers? Not exactly breaking news. But as with so many other movies, it’s not WHAT the movie is saying, but HOW it’s saying it. The movie’s length allows us to sort of settle into the routine of Tár’s life with her partner, her loyal assistant, her adopted child, her piano, her rehearsals, her infatuation with the new cellist, etcetera, so that when something out of the ordinary happens, you sit up and take notice.
As fate would have it, I recently sat down to watch another movie with a similar strategy: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 1975 Belgian film that just recently won the top spot in Sight and Sound’s decennial critics’ poll. For three hours, we observe a single mother going through the motions of “everyday” life – cooking, cleaning the house, feeding her teenage son, and daily assignations with men who pay her for sex. The strategy of the movie is to establish the heroine’s routine drudgery so that when the smallest element is out of place, it takes on extraordinary meaning.
In my humble opinion, I believe Tár takes that strategy, refines it, and presents it for a more contemporary audience, take it or leave it. For me, it worked. The more I think about it, the more impressed I get. I have a general rule about disliking movies with unlikable characters in the lead, but there are so many exceptions nowadays I’m thinking of demoting it to a guideline instead of a rule. Cate Blanchett’s Tár is in every single scene of the film, and she has the trappings of being a fascinating dinner guest, but she is not someone I would want to be friends with.
Take her relationship with her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant (whom you may remember as the lead in Portrait of a Lady on Fire). One day the assistant finds herself in line for a promotion. Tár gives the promotion to someone else for her own petty reasons, and when the assistant resigns, Tár immediately resorts to anger and fury. She has a revealing line where she says something to the effect of, “She KNOWS how much I depend on her! She did this on purpose!” Tár is so clueless about how terribly she treats people around her, she doesn’t even realize it when she accidentally admits how much she needs her assistant. This is not a nice person.
This makes her tragic story arc fairly satisfying. She begins to imagine phantom noises in her apartment at night. Some are explained away; others aren’t. An off-camera suicide occurs, and she is summoned to a deposition. The press gets hold of the story, and suddenly she finds herself in the process of becoming cancelled, which makes her opening teaching session that much more ironic.
I’m rambling at this point. I’m trying desperately to get my feelings of the movie across without giving too much of the plot away. This was a thoroughly enjoyable character study, shot and written and performed in a way that made every moment impactful and mesmerizing. As a fan of classical music, I LOVED the scenes where she conducts a German orchestra. She has a speech about how a conductor must literally obliterate herself in the service of the music, and I found that equally applicable to stagecraft. There is so much to like in this movie it’s difficult to know where to start or how to finish.
What is Tár telling us that is so important that it takes 2-and-half hours to tell? Maybe it’s something different for everyone. Maybe the better question is: What does it tell you?