It’s fascinating how the current social media landscape has evolved and re-examined our social interactions with other people. The rise of the “Me Too” movement allows society to delve into power structures. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s also been a keen awareness of what’s deemed as ‘cancel culture’. Todd Field’s newest film TÁR is one of the few films that decidedly explores both ideas and digs deep into them without ever feeling reactionary. Because of this, the movie feels nuanced, intelligent, and complex.
TÁR is a psychological drama about the world-renowned classical musical composer/conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchette). At the height of her career, she seeks to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Coduner), as she promotes her new live recording of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony. She plans to replace Sebastian with her personal assistant, Franchesca (Noémie Merlant). However, everything turns downward when Tár shows interest in a new musician, Olga (Sophie Kauer). This creates a rift between Tár and her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss). As the story progresses, we begin to see some of Tár’s skeletons come out of the closet – the past haunting her like ghosts seeking accountability, shaming the famed conductor for iniquity – and we start to question Tár’s motivations and morality.
The film ponders an idea that has been in the cultural conversation for ages: whether one can ever separate the art from the artist. Can you let go of whatever horrendous actions your favorite artist has done and enjoy the art they have given to the world? TÁR is layered enough that it doesn’t provide a concrete answer to any of the questions it poses, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusion in this matter. This in turn makes the film function since it never feels overly preachy or one-sided, it stays neutral in its stances.
TÁR opens with a montage of Lydia Tár’s life’s work, infused by a monologue by Adam Gopnik, who praises all the achievements Tár has made throughout her life. It’s an excellent opening sequence that shows how most people view the great Lydia Tár as this monolith of greatness, almost as a messiah in the musical arts or even the reincarnation of Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. This makes for a fantastic starting point in terms of optics since most of the film’s runtime will be spent deconstructing the myth of Lydia Tár, as it happens so often with morally questionable artists in our cultural landscape. The subsequent scene features Tár, in a beautiful invisible long take, as she gives a masterclass in Julliard to fresh new musicians eager to learn. What follows is Lydia Tár dismissing the concerns about identity politics provided by a queer POC student regarding the older, primarily straight-white male classical musicians. It’s a fascinating first look at how Lydia Tár sees the artist and how she values the work they have provided to the culture. It’s a perfect scene because it provides ideas for the audience to chew on – see different perspectives of the duality in art and the artist behind it. It decidedly doesn’t provide concrete answers. Instead, you see a battle of wits both by the student and Tár as they try to provide arguments and counter-arguments to the notion of an artist in an academic sense. It provides a perspective on current conversations about these types of topics and the way in which people tackle these seemingly ‘problematic’ concepts. This also serves as the thesis for the character study of Lydia Tár’s work as an artist and life as a mother.
Todd Field plays with who Lydia Tár is without giving the audience anything substantial to hold on to. It allows the audience to come to their own conclusions of what type of person Lydia Tar ultimately is during the span of the film. We see her personal life, how she interacts with her assistant Franchesca and her almost affair-esque relationship with her. We observe how she interacts with her family, how distant she acts around her violinist wife, and how she’s always trying to do better with her adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). However something is bubbling underneath this facade since Lydia tries hiding a past relationship with a former student whom she deems disturbed. The pattern continues as she starts to fancy a potential young musician as a potential replacement for Sebastian, changing her score during the audition to ensure her place in Tar’s orchestra.
The audience examines the guilt Lydia Tár feels throughout eerie dream sequences and the usage of offbeat sound design. A great example of this comes at the halfway point of the film, where Lydia hears a constant ticking, acting as a clock of sorts counting down to her demise, only to find out it’s a metronome hidden away in a closet. Beautiful visual metaphors are used efficiently by Field, which sells you on this psychological thriller of an artist at the height of her career as it careens by subsequent mistakes she keeps making throughout the film.
Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár is a revelation. The layers this character has are outstanding. You genuinely believe she’s a maestro in her field, even when you see so little of her as an orchestral composer on screen (it takes almost a full hour before you see her musical prowess); when you do, it’s a sight to behold. You can feel the palpable fear as her skeletons are being unearthed for the world to see and how she desperately grapples to hold on to what the world views her as. Her quiet moments are impactful, her line deliveries are top-notch, and she’s also pretty hilarious, with a somewhat sarcastic side to her multilayered persona. She embodies Lydia Tár to the fullest extent, also acting as an avatar for all the problematic artists we’ve seen in the last few years. It allows us to evaluate how we constantly grapple with either potentially supporting these problematic artists or condemning them for their actions, an inner debate many of us have come across at one point or another in recent memory.
The film’s pacing is excellent, slowly building the pedestal that is Lydia Tár, the great orchestra composer, and how the film methodically breaks apart that notion and reveals the ugly, more human side that lurks beneath all the accolades. It’s structured in a plethora of long takes that rely heavily on dialogue and tone, but everything is constructed in such an engaging way it never loses your attention by what you’re hearing and observing. All the dialogue spewed by the characters are thematically relevant to the film itself. Discussions of what used to be an artist for the masses, how that concept has shifted, and how power dynamics can destroy someone’s ethical ground, to name a few of the ideas explored through dialogue. Todd Field expertly trickles down information for the audience when it seems relevant and makes the audience second guess themselves constantly, which makes for an intellectually engaging experience.
TÁR ponders the idea, can you truly separate the art from the artist? The movie will never commit to giving you a concrete answer, but great cinema is the one that lingers inside of you hours and days after you see it and creates thought-provoking dialogue amongst your peers. That’s the sign of a piece of cinema that will stand the test of time.
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