From its opening shot, Tár – written and directed by Todd Field – announces that it is a film about ways of seeing that aims to unsettle the viewer’s preconceptions of the contemporary world. Through a smartphone, in long shot, we see Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) and a scroll of catty text messages, a conversation between the phone’s owner and an unseen friend. This framing is disconcerting: it attests to the ubiquity of this technology but also suggests that the woman on screen is unaware of how she is being scrutinised. Tár’s blithe disregard for the changes inaugurated by new technologies will prove part of her undoing.
Our introduction to who Tár is and what she represents comes via an onstage interview in New York. Her interlocutor is Adam Gopnik, played by the critic himself. We learn that Tár is one of the world’s pre-eminent conductors of classical music, and that she is intellectually brilliant and completely self-regarding. Field shoots close to Gopnik and Tár so the scene feels intimate, as if we are eavesdropping on a conversation, while some careful edits underscore how both interviewer and interviewee are fully aware of their audience.
I found myself holding my breath throughout, wondering if the tension of this dazzling, long scene would be maintained. It is. Part of its power comes from the daring and risk in Field’s writing. The passion and erudition of the positions being argued is intoxicating. As he showed in his previous films, In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), Field never underestimates his audience, and assumes that we are capable of understanding nuance and complexity. That trust is electrifying.
Crucially, that scene’s authority also comes from the strength of Blanchett’s performance. I still recall the charge that was in the audience when I first saw her in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) playing Queen Elizabeth I. There was no mimicry in her acting, no sense of her depending on centuries of mythos and historic biography to animate her portrayal of the 16th-century monarch: her work in that film possessed absolute fidelity, a fearlessness and iconoclasm that made her portrayal riveting and contemporary.
Her more recent film work has seen an increasing mannerism affect her acting. When the writing is slipshod, the cool reserve that is an indelible part of her persona can make her appear blank on screen. She couldn’t animate the leaden script for the miniseries Mrs. America (2020), in which she played conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly. Her performance was all external, a succession of nervous tics and regal posturing. She flailed as well in Guillermo del Toro’s crude reimagining of Nightmare Alley (2021).
In Tár, with a role that challenges her and in which aloofness is an integral part of her character, Blanchett is superb. As the film progresses, Tár’s narcissism, and superiority, is scuppered by an unfolding scandal where she is crucified on social media. Subsequently she loses her career, and her wife and daughter, because of accusations of bullying and sexual impropriety.
Blanchett is remarkable in these later scenes, communicating the gutting effects of the shame of public excoriation. Not every choice she makes works: there are moments when the histrionics of individual scenes seem overdone. But I loved watching her take risks, pushing her interpretation of the character so we simultaneously experience pity and derision. There’s a tension between Field and Blanchett wanting to make a film that probes questions about cancel culture and power while at the same time also aiming for a meticulous portrait of a fearless and talented female artist. This sets up a dissonance that is never fully resolved.
Field is also challenging himself as a filmmaker. His first two features were exquisite realist dramas whereas Tár aims for satire and moral parable. It’s clear that Field is still taking inspiration and guidance from his performers. He’s not an indulgent filmmaker and maybe his actors know that he won’t leave them floundering.
Tár is cruel and narcissistic but blessedly free of masochism, and you feel both Field’s and Blanchett’s relish in the idiosyncrasy of the character. It means that the satirical elements of the conception aren’t sacrificed – Tár is comic in the hubristic folly of her appalling behaviour – but also that the character isn’t contained within the strictures of allegory. Even at her most wicked, we’re secretly rooting for Tár.
Tár features some excellent supporting performances, particularly by Nina Hoss as Tár’s wife, Sharon. She is outstanding in some of the film’s most troubling scenes, where her ostensibly nurturing role is turned on its head once the scandal becomes public. The film also benefits from real-life musicians playing in the many orchestral and rehearsal scenes.
The best part is the first half, which concentrates on the sacrifices and choices an artist of Tár’s standing must make to have a successful career. The conducting scenes have a mesmerising forensic acuity. No viewer is going to be left in doubt that Tár is a bully and a liar, and that she exploits young women who work for her. Yet the vitality of the film comes from our understanding that her vocation isn’t pretence, that she is a disciplined virtuoso artist. It’s a long film but, because Field and Blanchett take the time to make us comprehend Tár’s talent, it succeeds in being genuinely provocative and unsettling.
Though I respect Field’s ambition to go beyond the realism that defined his previous films, there are aspects that don’t work. Tár keeps a separate apartment to her home in Berlin, where she composes and which she uses for trysts with younger women. There are shades of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) in some of the scenes that take place there, and suggestions of Repulsion (1965) in the nightmare visions and fears that increasingly assail Tár.
These references are not specious. How Jewish artists became central to classical music, both undermining and galvanising a once notoriously anti-Semitic art form, is one of the intricate themes that plays out in Tár, both a challenge and a reminder to the social media generations. However, Field lacks a flair for the uncanny and these haunting presentiments of fate are neither frightening nor illuminating. Also, the editing in the last act of the film is rushed. None of these later scenes allow for our rumination through a drama played out in real time, which is intrinsic to our delight in the opening interview and in a stunningly written early scene of a masterclass Tár takes at Juilliard. There, her pleasure in intellectually overwhelming an anxious student, who identifies as a “BIPOC pangender person”, will later backfire, when it forms part of the social media assault on her reputation.
Field has the necessary impishness for satire, expertly capturing the cowardly hypocrisy of contemporary arts boards and institutions.
There is also a clear-eyed awareness that even the most vocal critics of Tár’s behaviour are motivated to action only when they don’t get their own way. It can be argued that Tár paints a very cynical portrait of contemporary art worlds.
The final scene might be interpreted as a deserved punishment. Tár has moved far from the haute-bourgeois European arts culture to which she thought she belonged. But in a quiet and telling moment before her ultimate degradation, we glean that she never came from this world. That enigmatic scene makes us understand the cost involved in her success. Blanchett conveys Tár’s utter dedication to her work and we sense her dignity rather than her disgrace.
Nothing is simple in this film. Tár is ruthless and an exploiter. She’s also a great artist: no one will stop her working. That acknowledgement of the artist’s hunger and drive might be the most subversive, troubling and rousing aspect of this absorbing film. I don’t think Tár is cynical at all.
Tár is showing in cinemas across Australia.
EXHIBITION Other Horizons
Fremantle Arts Centre, until April 23
VISUAL ART ARTEXPRESS 2023
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, February 2–May 7
INSTALLATION Play Moves
Museum of Brisbane, until April 16
MUSIC Festival of King Island
Venues throughout King Island, Tasmania, February 3-4
EXHIBITION Interwoven Journeys: The Michael Abbott collection of Asian art
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until July 2
COMEDY Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until January 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Tár and feathered".
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