An anxious woman waits in the wings, accepting a pill and glass of water from the assistant she waves away then takes the stage before a full auditorium after an astonishing introduction by the New York Time’s Adam Gopnik. She will opine on the influence of Leonard Bernstein and her own field study with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon on the interpretation of time while conducting an orchestra. The EGOT winner who is about to complete recordings of Mahler with his Symphony No. 5 also has a book about her career in the offing, but when a former promising young protégée commits suicide, whispers begin circulating about “Tár.”
Laura's Review: A
Cate Blanchett has long been one of our greatest actresses but her latest performance is in a category all its own, an astonishing study of an artist so revered her genius has cast her bad behavior in shadow. “Tár” also marks the return of writer/director Todd Field ("In the Bedroom") whose work hasn’t been seen on the big screen since 2006's "Little Children.” While I’d hate to wait another sixteen years for his next, this one has definitely been worth the wait, an awe-inspiring masterpiece which contemplates whether great artistic achievement should be judged in light of its creator’s moral failings. Field refuses to spoon feed his audience, some of his film’s resulting ambiguities adding to its provocative considerations.
After marveling at Blanchett’s command of her character’s field as she responds to Gopnik, we see her intent focus on a young female fan (Sydney Lemmon) who approaches to express her admiration while Tár’s assistant Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire") registers…disgust? Or is that flicker in Francesca’s eyes merely impatience as she tries to hustle her boss onto her next appointment? Lydia cuts lunch short with Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), the investment head of Accordion, the scholarship she chairs, to teach a class at Julliard where her withering contempt for student Max’s (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) moral objections to certain composers borders on abuse. Although Lydia is unawares, her fate begins its downturn when Francesca informs her ‘I got another weird email from Krista.’ That Francesca is far more upset by these communications is telling, references to ‘the three of us’ implying as much as the young woman’s reluctance to leave Lydia’s office when the older woman clearly has dismissed her.
Lydia returns to her home in Berlin where she lives with her lover, Berlin’s lead violinist concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss, "Barbara") and their young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). The watchful Sharon notes how Lydia schemes to oust the Berlin Symphony’s assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner) and suddenly favors a cellist, Olga Metkina (cellist Sophie Kauer), who hasn’t even been offered a position yet, angering lead cellist Gosia Proboz (Dorothea Plans Casal). While Lydia is fiercely protective of Petra, threatening a young girl who’s been bullying her (and, notably, introducing herself as Petra’s father), when she bypasses Francesca for Sebastian’s position, she fails to see how she’s crushed the young woman, a fatal mistake.
Field gathers the various strands of Lydia’s story together gradually. We never see Lydia engage in sexual impropriety (Field allows a few brief, abstract flashes set against a black background) and when confronted with it by Sharon, her denial is so forceful we almost believe her, mainly because Lydia must believe these dalliances are her due. This is a woman who secretly pays for a car service for her aging mentor Andris (Julian Glover), rumored to have a Nazi past, so he will feel his contributions to Berlin’s Symphony are still honored.
Yet Field ensures Lydia feels an undercurrent of threat with several unsettling scenes accented by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s edgy score. Lydia checks for Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) beneath bathroom stalls, nervously noting the blue suede boots climbing a staircase outside of her rehearsal space. There is the mentally disabled neighbor (Tilla Kratochwil) to the apartment Tár keeps as ‘work space’ who she treats with impatience until recoiling from in horror when presented with her tragic circumstance. On a daily run, she is unable to find the source of a woman’s screams. Following Olga into a sketchy building, she is stalked. Her sensitivity to sound, which Andris has told her is a sign of intelligence, keeps her on edge.
Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (“Antlers”) alternately isolates Lydia in widescreen landscapes and emphasizes her power at the podium with low angles. Production designer Marco Bittner Rosser uses cool hues and the streamlined elegance of old wealth until jolting us with the cramped, blue collar, paneled jumble from which this woman sprang, the name which means ‘pretty’ changed to one designating ‘noble beauty.’ Lydia’s look is severe, costume designer Bina Daigeler outfitting her in bespoke menswear and sensible shoes, something Blanchett carries into her exaggerated, jerky movements at the conductor’s podium.
When it arrives with the full force of official accusations backed up with evidence, Tár’s downfall is swift, her humiliation expanding from a request to keep her noise down (countered with an insane burst of madness, an original song accompanied by accordion) to her new gig a half a world away. We’re left to ponder whether we’re better off rid of a ruthless manipulator and sexual predator if it also means the loss of the magnificent art she created. Together, Field and Blanchett have created a troubling work of art in a time where careers can vanish over improprieties hinted or long buried.
Focus Features opens "Tár" in select theaters on 10/7/22.