By Marc S. Sanders
I’m not sure what to make of this.
One of the very first scenes of writer/director/producer Todd Field’s Oscar nominated film Tár captures its title character Lydia Tár being interviewed for her celebrated career as one of the few widely known female conductor/composers in the world. Cate Blanchett is Lydia, and her vocal delivery is so crisp and sharp within the wordy conversation. I hear everything she is saying and yet I can not comprehend one thing that she is talking about. I’m sorry. I lack the knowledge to know the value and gifts of a skilled classical musician who expertly leads an orchestra. However, I think I gathered the most vital element of this scene. Lydia Tár knows she’s a celebrity as she discusses the influence she collected from Leonard Bernstein, and as she sits on this stage with this interviewer, she knows that she is one to be admired. Lydia Tár will likely claim to be the second coming of Bernstein. She is a proud -very proud-expert at her craft. No question about that. Yet, in front of this classroom audience she is also wearing her best figurative mask.
(Interestingly enough and a POSSIBLE SPOILER, the final caption of the film has the audience she performs to donning masks.)
Shortly after that interview comes another one-on-one discussion with her agent/lawyer, and a different angle to Lydia is presented at the restaurant table. I still found it challenging to understand the breadth of the conversation. I could uncover one thing though. The mask has been removed. Lydia Tár is now a proud condescending bitch.
The most eye opening scene occurs next as Lydia attempts to shatter the confidence of a student while she teaches a class at Julliard. Constructively speaking, this roughly ten-minute sequence is fascinating. Todd Field captures one long take, the camera never breaks away for an edit, as the composer destroys the position of this young student’s reasoning for not being an admirer of Bach. It consists of long, breathless monologues that travel with Cate Blanchett’s stride and Todd Field’s camera as the actress circumvents the classroom and the stage located up front. The student does not approve of Bach as a CIS, white composer whose sexual activities led to multiple children. However, Lydia does not factor in Bach as the person he was with his ugly warts and all. Rather she only values the art he created, and therefore this student should as well. All that is contained in the notes on the page are what Bach should be treasured for. Lydia confidently undoes the student’s argument with logic that is hard to win against. Todd Field will demonstrate with the rest of his film this destructive skill will also be Lydia Tár’s undoing.
It’s quite a proficiency Lydia has for tearing down the principals of anyone confronted with her. She is also adept at ripping away the promising potential and the talented traits that others possess. Lydia knows what she does. She knows the hurt and pain she inflicts among the people around her. Yet, just as she explains to the student, she should also be appreciated like Bach. You may despise her demeanor, but Lydia Tár is an artist of varying and exceptionally high degrees, especially for a woman. She is writing a book about herself appropriately titled Tár On Tár. She is in the middle of writing her own symphony, and she has the esteemed honor of conducting a major German orchestra in Berlin for an anticipated live performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Therefore, who she is as a person should carry no matter. Look only at what Lydia is capable of!!!!
Cate Blanchett is one of the few actors that can stand next to other talented peers like Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine or Jimmy Stewart. She is an uncompromising actress ready to play the unlikable characters necessary for effective storytelling. Lydia Tár is one such sociopath. Blanchett occupies nearly every frame of the picture, and she delivers such a frightening and obdurate drive to this person.
It’s funny. I often joke with a friend of mine about Faye Dunaway’s awful, over the top performance of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. It’s so ridiculously out of control and manically abusive that I don’t know where to begin with that film. Lydia Tár has that same kind of passion, but with Cate Blanchett possessing the character, accompanied by Todd Field’s script, there are an assortment of ways this tyrant leaves her carnage strewn about when she enters and leaves a scene. The outbursts are timed perfectly for these crescendo moments where Lydia believes she has everything under control and contained, but then a screw comes loose in her functioning that derails everything she’s built herself up to be.
However, this character lives within the modern digital age, where cell phone video footage and social media serve as a mirror and a judge and jury. It’s not so easy to dismiss what is said about Lydia when “if it appears on the internet, then it must be true.” Underlings will surrender to Lydia’s patronizing demands. They will cower or fidget with an involuntary bouncing knee or a clicking pen in their hand, while in her presence. Lydia is aware of the fear she invokes because she is so good at using it for her ongoing self-empowerment. However, she is not capable of overcoming the judgment she must endure when she becomes associated with the suicide of one of her former musicians; someone she lent the illusion of valuing only to dismiss her without so much of a care later. She’s also unaware of how to function without the dependability of her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant, doing her mousy best under the elephant shadow cast by Blanchett’s performance. Furthermore, the intrusion of Lydia’s self-consciousness comes into play as she gets disrupted by sounds that interrupt her sleep or silence or concentration as she kills herself trying to write her piece and live within her ego.
Tár is a film with a lot to unpack. The other Unpaid Movie Critic, Miguel, saw it before I did and told me that. He could not be more astute with that observation. I read his review after watching the film and my impression is pretty consistent with what he gathered from the piece. However, as I stared at my computer monitor wanting to write about this film, I told Miguel that I am at a loss of what to say about the picture. It’s a long movie. It actually feels longer. Ironically, if I were to watch it a second time, I think it would feel like a faster pace for me. I guess because I’d have an idea of where Todd Field was going with his film. My problem on this first go round was that I was lost as to what was occurring, and what or who was being talked about. Todd Field tells this story with the presumption that his audience is familiar with the art and industry of music composition. For me, the vernacular is totally foreign. He doesn’t offer exposition to explain the science of it all like how a crime drama will allow moments to explain police procedure for example, or a fantasy will display who/what is most valuable in its kingdom. Don’t misconstrue what I say, please. I’m not complaining. Tár speaks to the musicians first.
Only later did I accept that much of what is held within the dialogue is not a priority for me. I should be examining the act of Lydia’s cruelty, self-absorption, and the response she elicits from anyone who steps into her world. It’s interesting that Cate Blanchett speaks fluent German (she specifically learned it, as well as orchestral conducting for this film) to her orchestra, but sometimes Todd Field opts not to provide subtitles of what she’s saying to them. In other moments though, he will. It doesn’t matter what she is saying. Her body language and her – well…her OUTSTANDING – performance convey the messages.
Because my mind deviated during the film, simply because it was a challenge to understand what was going on, I kept going back and forth with the little figures on my shoulders. I hate it. I like it. I hate it. Okay, now I like it. Reflecting back on the film, I think Tár is an enormous achievement for both Cate Blanchett and Todd Field. This film is a very far cry from the sentimental ingredients I found in his other films (Little Children, In The Bedroom).
For Blanchett, this role is a massive test of endurance with endless amounts of dialogue to cover in long takes, along with speaking French, German and especially the dialect of classical music while she stands at the podium with the baton held in her hand. She uses that baton like a weapon at times, a ruler with a broad sword or an extension of her arm. There was one moment where she holds the instrument with both hands and swings it violently like a golf club or a baseball bat. I’ve never seen that before. It’s shocking how she handles herself. I noted how Margot Robbie must have exhausted herself into oblivion while performing her drug fueled rages in Babylon. I said she must have curled up in a corner after some takes just to calm herself down. I would not be surprised if Cate Blanchett sought some therapeutical treatment following shooting some of these scenes. A role like Lydia Tár is so tyrannical, so cruel, so paranoid and so indulgent that it exhausts you mentally to watch her function. For Blanchett, her strive for perfection must have taken a toll on her mentally as well as physically. Her performance is comparable to the crazed obsession found in Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the greedy oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood or what he achieved as Abraham Lincoln.
Come later this year, Cate Blanchett will be the one taking home the trophy for Best Actress at the Oscars. It’ll be so well deserved.
I recommend you see Tár, and I urge you to stay with it. It’ll test you. It’ll try you. Stay with it, though, because when it is over you won’t stop thinking about it.