Movie Review: ‘Tar’
Plot: Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a world-renowned conductor and composer and the first female chief conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic. Although rich, famous, and on the verge of recording Mahler’s 5th symphony, Lydia’s world is upended by the suicide of her former lover and fellowship member Krista Taylor. As the history of Lydia’s abuses of power comes to light, her world begins to unravel, resulting in a cascade of self-destruction.
Review: As a cinephile and movie reviewer, I see it as my duty to see as many films as possible that release in any given year. My favorite consequence of this endeavor is when I come across a film that unexpectedly floors me, one I wasn’t seeking out but nevertheless found me.
Tar is one of those films.
The first film from director Todd Field (Little Children) in over a decade and a half, Tar proves more than worth the wait. A captivating tour de force of acting from Cate Blanchett, Tar proves to be an acting feast from the opening interview with real-life New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik to the closing moments of an unexpected live recording. It’s a complete and total immersion into the complex, often pretentious, and high-class world of professional classical music. The fact that it is a topic I couldn’t care less about but was nonetheless completely riveted by, speaks volumes.
Todd Field’s direction is flawless with the film being less of a straight narrative and more of a character study. Field rightly eschews close-ups which reinforces the fact that Lydia is a difficult person to know, perhaps even someone you don’t want to know intimately. Every interaction seems transactional from her relationship with doomed fellowship member Krista Taylor to her relationship with her personal assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant). The transactional relationships in Field’s film are often reinforced by actual exchanges of money for services rendered, something I found fascinating. Field chooses to keep the focus continually on Lydia. This is enhanced by Florian Hoffmeister’s excellent cinematography which tracts Lydia constantly, whether she’s long-distance running or stalking across a classroom at Juilliard. Hoffmeister’s solid work is concurrently complimented by another brilliant score from Oscar winner Hildur Guonadottir.
As superb as Field’s direction is, his screenplay may be better. His attention to detail and meticulous delineation of the world of classical conducting is second to none. This is a world that admittedly I know little about and yet I never felt isolated by the topic. On the contrary, the whole concept was fascinating. It ranged the gamut from the experimentation of Lydia as she preps for the Mahler recording, to her heartfelt lunches with her mentor Andris Davis (Julian Glover in a small but impactful role), or dealing with sycophants like Mark Strong’s Eliot Kaplan.
Yet the throughline of Tar remains firmly fixed on Lydia. Rather than make Lydia a full-on Harvey Weinstein-Esque monster, Field chooses to give her nuance and depth. Despite being superbly egotistical and self-obsessed, there’s no doubting Lydia’s talent. The fact that Lydia succeeds in a male-driven industry but that that fact isn’t force-fed to the audience is a testament to her greatness. Additionally, although Lydia cheats on her wife at every opportunity and clearly grooms young women for sexual favors, you never doubt the sincere love she has for her daughter Petra. Indeed, it proves to be one of the only non-transactional relationships in her whole life. Yet even that isn’t 100% wholesome as Lydia at one point physically threatens one of Petra’s classmates who has been bullying her. It underscores her ruthlessness.
However, the most fascinating and intriguing aspect of Tar is its examination of cancel culture/accountability culture as it pertains to supreme talent. Being extraordinarily talented at something doesn’t absolve you from shitty and abusive behavior whether you are Kevin Spacey, Kanye West, or John McAfee. Eventually, your sin will find you out and I couldn’t help but express a visceral pleasure at Lydia’s downfall and comeuppance. Yet rather than have Lydia end up penniless and alone, where she actually ends up feels like a more suitable punishment, one I won’t spoil here. Field raises the age-old question of separating the art from the artist. Can you still enjoy works produced by that artist despite knowing their personal history? Can you revel in Bach’s magnificent body of work even though he was a known womanizer and sired upwards of twenty children? Can you appreciate Woodrow Wilson’s creation of the League of Nations knowing that he was a militant segregationist? Can you respect the amazing civil rights accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. even though he constantly cheated on his wife and plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis? Can you admire Good Will Hunting knowing it was produced by a shit-goblin like Harvey Weinstein? Field doesn’t offer easy answers to these questions other than “your mileage may vary.”
Yet none of the aforementioned narrative choices would work here without the superb performance of Cate Blanchett. In a career that has spanned the gamut from Galadriel to Katherine Hepburn to Queen Elizabeth I, Tar may be her best performance to date and will most likely garner her eighth Academy Award nomination. You simply can’t take your eyes off of Blanchett throughout this entire film. She’s simply captivating. Every scene makes for a complex and nuanced character. You’re impressed by her accomplishments in the opening interview scene. You’re warmed by her touching and fierce relationship with her daughter. You’re disgusted by her treatment of lovers as disposable objects. You’re infuriated by her public humiliation of a student who doesn’t like Bach while guest lecturing at Julliard. You’re also sympathetic to her idea not to dismiss the greatness of Bach’s talent outright simply because he was a straight, white, cis-gendered male, and lothario.
Tar proves to be a stunning achievement that’s as riveting as it is infuriating. Todd Field has crafted an excellent examination of a severely flawed genius while making social commentary that never feels heavy-handed. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait sixteen years for another edition to Field’s filmography.
My rating system:
1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See