Tár comes to us from writer/director/producer Todd Field (PDX represent!), who gained great critical acclaim with Little Children back in 2006 and his projects had a nasty habit of falling apart in the time since. His dry spell finally came to an end when he devised a starring vehicle for Exec Producer Cate Blanchett, and she had the good sense to say “yes”. So it is that Field and Blanchett worked together on this two-and-a-half-hour behemoth mired in all sorts of incoherent controversy about sexual harassment and abuse of power and gender dynamics and so on and so forth.
I had no idea what to make of this movie going in. Even coming out of the movie, I’m still having a hard time putting it together. So let’s take it from the top, shall we?
After rolling the credits for the crew in reverse order — something I don’t think has ever been done at the top of a movie before — we open with a fifteen-minute interview introducing us to Lydia Tár (Blanchett). In summary, Lydia is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest living composer/conductors, an EGOT winner and former protégé to Leonard Bernstein himself. Most importantly, Lydia is the founder of an ongoing fellowship for up-and-coming female conductors, she’s the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and she’s on the cusp of conducting every symphony in the Bernstein-Mahler cycle, concluding with an upcoming performance of Mahler’s 5th.
Got all that? Remember, the full introduction and interview went on for fifteen unbroken minutes, so there’s a lot that I’m glossing over.
We go from there to another extended sequence (a ten-minute scene presented in a single dizzying take, no less), in which Lydia gives a guest lecture at Julliard. Once there, she gets into a rather heated argument with a student (Max, capably played by newcomer Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who doesn’t like classical music composed by old white men who were womanizers and racists and so on. By contrast, Lydia thinks it best to separate the art from the authors, tackle the work head-on, and look for anything of value and beauty in the work itself. I hasten to add that Lydia is coming at all of this as an open lesbian with a wife and daughter of her own (namely Sharon and Petra, respectively played by Nina Hoss and Mila Bogojevic). Oh, and Lydia’s wife just happens to be the first violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic as well.
The bottom line here is that Lydia Tár is a genius with the fatal flaw of arrogance. She’s the kind of brilliant mind who could find a way to talk herself and anyone else into pretty much anything. More to the point, she’s got a nasty habit of focusing on her magnum opus to the point where she figures nothing could be more important, nothing could possibly derail it, and everything else is a triviality that doesn’t matter and/or will sort itself out.
Then the rest of the film happens.
To be clear, this is still a movie in excess of 150 minutes. That’s basically two hours of issues slowly bubbling under the surface, until they finally blow up in Lydia’s face all at once in the last half-hour. This movie is a slow, SLOW burn.
And yet that’s a huge part of what makes the film so effective. After all, the longer Lydia takes to directly address these crucial problems, the more time she has to keep digging herself deeper, the longer she lets her problems linger and the more chances she squanders at fixing them, the bigger and sweeter that eventual payoff is. Not only does the climax make for an exciting moment of drama when it finally comes, but it also emphasizes the thematic point that Lydia has thoroughly earned her own downfall through her own arrogance. Furthermore, Lydia starts the movie going on at great length about how works of art stand regardless of the author’s personal failings, and then we get to watch as her own personal failings bring her career crashing down.
So aside from her own short-sighted arrogance, what are these fatal personal failings? Well, the big one concerns Krista Taylor, a former student to Lydia through her fellowship program. Alas, Krista was… ahem “troubled” in unspecified ways. She commits suicide early on in the movie, and there’s circumstantial evidence that some kind of improper relationship with Lydia was a motivating factor.
I hasten to add that we never actually meet Krista. We ever see any direct interaction between her and Lydia. While it’s certainly possible that Krista was a delusional stalker with an unhealthy fixation, it’s just as possible that Lydia might have abused her power and engaged Krista in some kind of illicit liaison.
There’s not much in the way of proof one way or the other. That said, Lydia’s answers about Krista are strangely vague and evasive, and there are some reasonable questions she has no answer for at all. On top of that, we have some vague dream sequences and peculiar little events that clearly show Lydia is still rattled over something that went down between her and Krista.
The bottom line is that a once-promising young woman is now dead of her own hand, and Lydia has been implicated in the circumstances that directly caused the suicide. What’s worse, Lydia keeps making erratic decisions with regard to her staff, most particularly with regard to her longtime assistant (Francesca, played by Noemie Merlant) and an attractive young up-and-coming cellist new to the Berlin Philarmonic (Olga, played by newcomer Sophie Kauer, an actual cello prodigy).
Given Lydia’s patterns of repeating behavior and the suicide that happened the last time all of this played out, of course everyone around Lydia is going to err on the side of caution. And given Lydia’s ego, she’s going to make damn sure that doesn’t end well for anyone involved.
I give Todd Field full marks for keeping the slow build going, even through the slowest of stretches. Given the premise heavily dependent on rumors and innuendoes, it’s imperative for the audience to understand what the characters are stating or implying without a word said. Moreover, as this is a movie populated entirely with musical geniuses who speak with each other almost exclusively in their native tongue, we needed a filmmaker who could portray those conversations in a way that would remain accessible and interesting to anyone who doesn’t hold a doctorate in musical history. Field does all of this and more with every perfectly timed cut and every exquisitely framed close-up. To say nothing of those fantastic one-shot scenes.
Of course the other big reason this movie works so well is Cate Blanchett’s lead performance. Given the caliber of Blanchett’s worldwide fame, and given the near-total lack of elaborate costumes or makeup or VFX, it’s positively astounding how well Blanchett melted into this role. Five minutes into this movie, she had me well and truly convinced that Lydia Tár was an actual person and a bona fide world-class musical genius. From the character’s highest peak to her lowest crash and at all points in between, Blanchett turned in a powerhouse performance, compelling and captivating to watch.
I’m sorry to say that next to Blanchett, everyone else in the supporting cast is just kinda there. Mark Strong is in the cast, and I almost wish he wasn’t — as the only other name actor in the entire cast, I found myself disappointed that he was so thoroughly wasted in such a small role, and his presence was a distraction whenever he came up. Though I will give Noemie Merlant and Nina Hoss full credit for so capably holding the screen against Cate Blanchett at the peak of her talent. That goes doubly so for Sophie Kauer and Zethphan Smith-Gneist, both of whom came out of this looking like seasoned veterans far beyond their screen acting debuts.
Tár is a tough one to gauge. It’s certainly a well-crafted movie, with superb direction from Todd Field and what could very well be a career-best performance from Cate Blanchett. On the other hand, that 158-minute runtime is a huge ask, especially with so little action to power those first two hours. I’d argue that it’s worth it for the statements about arrogance and the relationship between author and art, but I’ve never been one to take “It gets better later” as a valid reason to keep going past the point of patience.
Ultimately, I’d say that if you’re the type of filmgoer who’s got the patience to sit through a 158-minute movie, you’re the type of filmgoer who should definitely check this out.