Cate Blanchett plays a composer about to face a hellish music in the third film from Todd Field.
After a long career in acting which started in 1986, Todd Field made the transition to work behind the camera through writing and directing the critically acclaimed features In The Bedroom and Little Children. After a 16-year absence, Field has returned to Hollywood with the artsy drama Tár, and the results prove to be more than worth the wait thanks to his inventive direction, a commanding career-best performance from Cate Blanchett, and a thoughtful script packed with ideas about high society, the obsessive nature of artistry and their inner psychology.
Tár is named after Blanchett’s fictional character Lydia Tár, an unbelievably accomplished composer in the world of classical music. She spends her days teaching music composition at The Juilliard School in New York City, raising her adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) with her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), and preparing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in its entirety, which is slated to be the first concert led by a female conductor. But with all that success comes a massive obsession with her work and making every composition she writes the best it’s ever done.
This drive leads her into quickly making decisions at the expense of those around her, from rotating her assistant composer Sebastian (Allan Corduner) out of her company to rejecting those who audition for her troupe for the smallest flaw she finds wrong, with her personal assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant) observing the aftermath first-hand as the mediator between them and Lydia. Little does the conductor know, however, that the effects of her treatment on people and a secret aspect to her personal life are slowly but surely coming through the cracks of her public perception, with consequences impossible for her to imagine.
And Lydia’s journey into societal oblivion is captivating from start to finish, mainly through Cate Blanchett’s magnetic performance which ranks among the best of her career. She commands the screen right from the get-go, responding to questions in a live NPR interview via long-winded, elaborate answers which she delivers with a dignified naturalism that hypnotizes onlookers into understanding her philosophies about music and her power as a composer. She also conveys the dominant aspects of Lydia’s personality in a single take scene where she maneuvers around her Juilliard lecture hall with a blissful confidence, while private moments see her imitating the sound effects she hears in the world around her before implementing them into a piece she’s writing, creating an intimacy in revealing Lydia’s strangest eccentricities.
Todd Field also proves that he hasn’t lost a step after 16 years away from the director’s chair by inviting the audience into the absorbing and lavish worlds of high society and classical music, first by leading with its end credits in an alignment not unlike the playbill of a concerto. Then when the story begins, it does so in a grounded filmmaking style that feels private and intrusive at the same time. The camera observes Lydia in scenes with her wife and daughter from meticulously framed static shots, while it glides around her classroom as she verbally tears a student’s work to shreds, further adding a cerebral level to the experience of watching the film by asking viewers to judge her as a person at every turn.
Field’s screenplay also takes turns for the hallucinatory as it follows Lydia from one luxurious restaurant after another to the darkness of an apartment complex’s dilapidated basement and even the jungles of an Eastern country. The script for Tár also gives Lydia and her colleagues a vast vocabulary that’s off-putting yet engrossing, as it amplifies the conductor’s pride and high opinion of herself. Meanwhile, the sound mix supplies an ominousness to Lydia’s story as it cuts through the silence of instances where the composer searches for where a given sound effect is coming from in the middle of the night, or on her morning run.
As involving a film that Tár is, it does require patience from its spectators. The first hour of the film takes its time to pull back the layers of Lydia’s celebrity and reveal what the plot is really about, and what kind of journey on which Lydia is headed. That being said, if one goes into Field’s latest film expecting something super experimental based on the trailer, they’ll be disappointed because there are many interesting images used in the marketing for this that didn’t make the final cut.
But that was done to craft a compelling narrative, and the one at the center of Tár is a cerebral character study of the canceled, led by Cate Blanchett’s phenomenal lead performance. She portrays Lydia Tár as a woman who lets the deadly concoction of pride, egotism and obsession take over her mind so much that she forgets why she became a composer in the first place, further losing her capacity for emotion, with their ramifications sending her on a spiral that’s beguiling and unsettling at the same time, as it reminds us that we have a collective power of judgment that matches, if not supersedes the omniscience of the artist. It is haunting as it is truthful, and that’s why Tár is one of the best films of the year.