cate blanchett conducting an orchestra in 'Tár'

Review: Separating the ‘Tár’ From the Artist

Cate Blanchett gives her all in Todd Field’s unflinching character portrait

The first time we see Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in the film that bears her name she is psyching herself up for a live Q&A. When she arrives on stage the interviewer begins reading a list of her accomplishments, which is extensive. EGOT winner, first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, considered one of the greatest living composer-conductors. As the interviewer (The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself) goes down the list, her assistant Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant) mouths along with the words as we realize this introduction has been pre-prepared for Gropnik to recite. On stage, Tár nods along as he speaks, her hand occasionally fluttering during a particularly important beat, subconsciously conducting her own interview.

Through this scene and many that follow, director Todd Field’s latest paints a detailed portrait of a person with complete and utter control over her world and everything (and everyone) in it. There is not a single action Lydia Tár makes that isn’t calculated to maintain that control. Professionally, this attribute is a benefit as we watch her relentlessly tweak and refine the orchestra’s musicians to achieve perfection for their performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, considered the crowning achievement of her sparkling career. There’s an irony that such a cold, dispassionate person would be responsible for conducting an art form that is meant to evoke our deepest, most elusive emotions, as if she is only capable of expressing emotion through music. 

If there is a crack in her ruthlessly-composed façade it is with her daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic), “the only relationship in your whole life that hasn’t been transactional,” her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) tells her. Lydia dotes on Petra and, upon learning her daughter is being bullied at school, pulls the 8-year-old culprit aside and obliterates her with a brutal talking-to conducted entirely in German. This scene, where she defends her brown-skinned child from a white bully, is juxtaposed with another where she herself berates a young, brown-skinned Juilliard student for questioning the modern relevance of old, white, male composers. 

The myopia of her worldview becomes clear as she bristles at any opposition to the universe she has carefully arranged with herself at the center. This amount of power also lets her choose who gets the privilege of existing in her orbit, and they are more often than not beautiful young women. Francesca, who seems destined to become assistant conductor, is a graduate of a foundation Tár created to mentor female composers. Other women in the foundation weren’t so lucky, however, and Tár instructs Francesca to delete emails from an emotionally frantic former protegé who was mysteriously blackballed by Tár. “She wasn’t one of us,” she explains. Her favoritism towards the orchestra’s newly-arrived female cellist further deepens suspicions that Tár is using her position to recruit and groom young women.

Defender and bully, genius and predator. What’s notable about Tár is that it doesn’t ask you to like or dislike its titular character, it simply wants you to know her. During a time when so many women on screen are reduced to one-dimensional portrayals as “strong” ass-kickers or yassified girlbosses, Tár is a fully-faceted tour-de-force character piece not only for its director but for its lead actor. 

The film is in constant, subtle conversation with gender, and it’s no coincidence that the role could be played by a man without scarcely changing a word of the script. Tár herself is quick to dismiss her gender as a novelty, stating that she believes women no longer face discrimination in the classical music world. For a white woman who has definitively shattered the glass ceiling you can see how this would seem true. She achieved success, so clearly sexism is solved, right? Is it gender parity if women abuse their power as equally as men? Ultimately the film lands on the conclusion that an asshole is still an asshole no matter what gender they are. 

As brilliantly as it sets up Tár as a full and flawed character, the film stumbles when it comes time to tear (Tár?) her down. While Field meticulously paints a portrait of the character at the top of her game, he hits the fast-forward button when her carefully-constructed world of control is under threat of collapse. The relentless frigidity of Tár’s façade requires the cathartic heat of emotional chaos that never comes. We see coolly polite depositions and passive-aggressive publicity events. We see the aftermath of a downfall but get very little sense of the people affected by it. The film always stays just on the edge of the storm without plunging us into its heart.

Many will find Tár to be as cold and severe as its protagonist. At nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes it takes an immensely talented actor to carry a film like this, and Blanchett gives the role everything she has. As an unrelenting character piece, Tár is a triumph, but flails when trying to decipher what any of it all means. The conductor can be clearly seen but the music is difficult to hear. 

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!


Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.