A Riveting Cate Blanchett Anchors 'Tár,' Todd Field's Provocative Drama About Classical Music and Power | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Riveting Cate Blanchett Anchors 'Tár,' Todd Field's Provocative Drama About Classical Music and Power

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Published November 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Blanchett plays a magnetic maestro with a dark side in Field's riveting drama set in the classical music world. - COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES
  • Courtesy Of Focus Features
  • Blanchett plays a magnetic maestro with a dark side in Field's riveting drama set in the classical music world.

The Oscar buzz is strong around Tár, a drama set in the world of classical music from writer-director Todd Field (Little Children) that is currently playing at the Savoy Theater, Essex Cinemas and Merrill's Roxy Cinemas. Cate Blanchett won the Venice Film Festival's Volpi Cup for her performance in the title role, which Field wrote for her.

Like any serious award contender, Tár has drawn some backlash to go with its acclaim. One critic professed herself shocked and disappointed when her post-film googling revealed that the protagonist wasn't a real person. I went to Tár to learn how a fictional character could elicit such strong reactions.

The deal

Lydia Tár (Blanchett), the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is as close to a celebrity as anyone gets in classical music. As the film opens, a rapt audience at the New Yorker Festival watches the American-born EGOT (winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) speak about her upcoming live recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Tár's fashion and manners are impeccable. Her family — she's married to a German violinist (Nina Hoss) — is adorable. Her purring voice drips erudition. She has a track record of uplifting aspiring female conductors. A loyal young assistant (Noémie Merlant) caters to her every need.

But behind the scenes of this beautifully controlled performance, a storm is brewing. Not every young woman Tár mentored benefited from the experience. When the truth comes out, the tempest could destroy her.

Will you like it?

I grew up watching my composer-conductor father wield the baton at various Manhattan concert halls, and I expected Tár to present a simplified, glamorized version of a maestro's life, just as Hollywood has treated every other kind of artist. I was wrong.

While I can't vouch for the accuracy of every detail, Field has created what feels like a classical music procedural based on exhaustive research. Early on, during a freighted conversation between Tár and an envious colleague (Mark Strong), it's clear that the filmmaker won't spoon-feed us information. We must listen carefully — not just because Tár is prone to using phrases such as "epistemic dissident" but because the dialogue bristles with seemingly throwaway lines that pay off later.

Tár is an intimate portrait not just of an individual but of a power structure centuries in the making. Our protagonist, who began her career as an outsider and (it's hinted) even something of a rebel against the classical establishment, has thrived to the point where she is now at the pinnacle of that structure. With a hubris familiar from countless #MeToo stories, she takes advantage of time-honored hierarchies to get what she wants.

It's a downfall story as old as Greek tragedy and as new as yesterday's headlines, but Blanchett gives it a fierce new energy. We may not know the complete catalog of Tár's misdeeds, but we do know her, because the actor makes two things clear: Control is what Tár craves most, and she's almost always performing, even in seemingly candid moments with her wife.

Actors love to play fellow performers, and the role is a natural fit for Blanchett's imperious presence. But she never goes for the easy thrill of pushing Tár into the realm of camp. Even when the maestro comes unhinged, she does it with characteristic panache.

Structurally, Tár suffers from an imbalance: Field follows a long, painstakingly detailed buildup with a whirlwind of a denouement and epilogue in which the film veers into dark satire, heavy-handed metaphor and even moments of gothic horror. I wished there had been more time to see all of the story's threads spool out, but that's not a criticism so much as an indication of just how riveted I was for the film's hefty run time.

Some viewers seem troubled that Tár depicts a woman — a self-described "U-Haul lesbian" — who is capable of committing improprieties. But, as we all learned in high school English, power corrupts, and this is a story about power, both artistic and institutional.

Art has a notoriously selfish side, as Tár acknowledges when she addresses pesky questions about the composers she reveres: Should we think of Mahler as someone who wrote an immortal symphony to express his love for his wife or someone who suppressed his wife's desire to be an artist in her own right? Field challenges us to ask similar questions about Tár. If his creation stays with us long after the credits, that's because there are no easy answers.

If you like this, try...

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014; rentable): Like Tár, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar winner makes bold statements about a cultural icon having a reckoning with changing mores. The two films would be fascinating to compare and contrast, thematically and stylistically.

The Piano Teacher (2001; HBO Max, rentable): Are you up for another dark character study of a female musician in a European setting? A very, very dark one? Isabelle Huppert plays a rigid perfectionist whose search for release leads her to dangerous places in Michael Haneke's adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's novel.

The Conductor (2021; rentable): Or maybe you'd prefer a more inspiring story from real life. Like the fictional Tár, Marin Alsop is a major American conductor who began as a protégée of Leonard Bernstein. This documentary chronicles the struggles she faced on the way up.

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