REVIEW: Tár (dir. Todd Field)

Certificate: 15 (sexually abusive behaviour). Running Time: 158 mins. UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

WHO’S IN IT?

Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong, Sylvia Flote, Adam Gopnik, Mila Bogojevic, Zethphan Smith-Gneist

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Todd Field (director, writer, producer), Scott Lambert, Alexandra Milchan (producers), Hildur Guðnadóttir (composer), Florian Hoffmeister (cinematographer), Monika Willi (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The life of a world-famous composer (Blanchett) begins to fall apart…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON TÁR?

Despite receiving widespread acclaim for his Oscar-nominated features In The Bedroom and Little Children, filmmaker Todd Field has only now gotten around to making his third film, more than fifteen years after the last one. However, he’s bided his time well, returning at just the right moment with Tár, a deeply complex and impressively layered feature that many have called the filmmaker’s most accomplished film to date.

However, while there are certainly things that I can highly commend it for, from the obvious to the not-so obvious, Tár is ultimately a film that I never found myself falling in love with, despite all the ingredients for an all-time classic being right there in front of me.

The film centres around Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a fictional composer who is known far and wide as one of the world’s greatest living conductors, having won numerous accolades – including the evasive EGOT collection – and headlining a major European orchestra, the first such title for any woman. Much of the action takes place in the lead-up to a monumental recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony, which would complete a major milestone in Tár’s illustrious career, but it’s far from smooth sailing, especially as we begin to see Tár for who she really is. She is something of a monster, constantly taking advantage of her powerful position to destroy the careers of others, and to groom younger members of her orchestra into sexually transactional relationships, something that doesn’t sit well with others around her, from her put-upon assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) to her long-suffering wife Sharon (Nina Hoss). Eventually, the truth slowly begins to seep out, threatening to destroy her career, her reputation, and above all her psychological state which becomes more and more unhinged as things progress.

Tár is the kind of morose character study that gets increasingly uncomfortable the more you watch it, and not necessarily because of the sleazy actions that our titular anti-hero might as well be doing out in the open (although, of course, they don’t help). Field lays his writing on thick here, to where the film opens with the mother of all exposition dumps – guised as an on-stage interview celebrating Tár’s life and work – which goes on for at least a good five or ten minutes. I’ll admit, it’s a gutsy way to begin any movie, but it also sets the pace and tone for the rest of the film’s scenes, which are dialogue-heavy to an almost fault, and require an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of everything that these characters are talking about to only get a gist of what the underlying subtext may be. The writing itself is good, sometimes impressively so, but it takes a while for things to really get moving enough to feel fully immersed into this high-brow world, and I personally found it difficult to get a gage on its ultimate intentions without feeling as though there was a slight whiff of pretention to how it approaches itself.

However, if one were to come at it from a different angle, perhaps the film’s high horse attitude is intentional. After all, what Field is doing here is putting us into the mindset of a deeply flawed character whose own arrogance and power-hungry ambitions are major contributors to her ultimate downfall, so why wouldn’t everything from the writing to the direction to the cinematography feel oddly heightened and artistically grandiose? This perspective allows the viewer to see the world as Lydia Tár herself sees it, which is to say an atmosphere that is slowly dominated by obsession and slowly building mental instability, but all the while maintaining a firm composure that is respectable, no matter what else you may think of this person. Even I will admit that this is a very clever angle that Field has chosen to take in this particular instance, and while it remains perhaps a bit too dry and long-winded for my personal tastes, I can at least admire the intent as well as parts of its execution.

The one thing that was really carrying me through the entire movie, however, was Cate Blanchett’s undeniably magnificent lead performance, which from the very first frame completely sucks you in and never lets go until the final credits begin to roll. Blanchett makes it almost too easy to see why the world at large has fallen for Lydia Tár and her immense talent, because she breathes energetic life and intelligence into every syllable that flies out of her mouth, dominating the screen at every single turn and never letting up, even when things start to move into slightly surreal territory towards the latter half. Even as it becomes painfully clear that her character is pretty repugnant, Blanchett does still manage to make you empathise with her in some way, because while she is guilty of doing some reprehensible stuff, she’s never so unlikeable that you root for her downfall (then again, Field’s film is all about putting the viewer into her shoes, so it’s unlikely she’d see herself in the same way as everyone else begins to). Amidst a career that has been full of outstanding performances, Blanchett really does feel as though she’s on exceptional form in Tár, in what has to be at the very least a career highlight in the same way that Raging Bull is for Robert De Niro or There Will Be Blood is for Daniel Day-Lewis.

It does have everything you’d expect to see in a modern classic, from the unique and respectful methods of storytelling to an absolute showstopper of a central performance, but ultimately Tár is a film that I have more admiration for than full-on love. It is a tricky film to comprehend, and I can imagine that most people who aren’t of the high-brow world depicted in this movie similarly struggling to find a genuine connection with it. However, much like the kind of live orchestral performance that Lydia Tár herself would perhaps conduct, you can’t help but admire the absolute passion that’s gone into it.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Tár is an impressively crafted but slightly difficult film to comprehend, which despite some unique storytelling methods, and a career-best turn by Cate Blanchett, can often feel too morose and self-satisfied to truly connect with it.

Tár is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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