Written and directed by Todd Field, with the main role specifically earmarked for Cate Blanchett, Tár is a character study and a murky psychological thriller that claims to be making a statement about abuse and manipulation, but seems to sadly muddy the waters of a conversation that still doesn’t seem to be allowed to fully unfold without numerous caveats and attempts to put a different angle on things. I will get back to this point later, but please bear it in mind.
Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a phenomenal musician and composer who is aiming to present a symphony she believes may well be her greatest triumph. Lydia has a loyal assistant (played by Noémie Merlant), a supportive wife (played by the incredible Nina Hoss), and numerous students and peers all ready to bask in the glow of her talent and heap more praise upon her. She also has a history of manipulation and exploitation of her position, whether it is intentional or not. The death of a former student, and the circumstances surrounding her relationship with Lydia, leads to the start of a whirlwind change of events that may see the maestro feeling more in the pits than on the podium.
There’s no denying that this is an interesting film, paced slowly to draw viewers into the world of the main character, and featuring a superb core cast all doing great work. I would argue that both Blanchett and Hoss are two of the best actresses working today, and they are joined onscreen by the talented Mark Strong, Julian Glover, and others I am less familiar with, but who were certainly bringing their A-game while orbiting such a flawless lead performance. Because Blanchett, whether conducting an orchestra, playing piano, or shredding apart a student for letting their modern day morality affect their choice of music to work with, IS flawless here. She can do cold and calculating as well as she can do confused and flustered, and she seems to relish playing someone we get to see, at one point, menacingly threaten a child.
Field knows what he is doing, constantly framing the film around Blanchett’s imposing figure, with most of the scenes showing passionate and dedicated musicians doing their work in displeasingly dark and cold environments, unless relishing the times when playing to an audience. There is an ugliness here, from the visual palette to the light levels, but it feels like a reflection of the world that Lydia has created for herself, one that is only lit up by a few different elements.
Getting back to the conversation this is part of though, Tár would seem to be a film originating from the #metoo movement, making it another important part of an ongoing process that hopes to make our world safer and more transparent for women (not exclusively women, but predominantly so), but that is where it feels least valuable. This feels, to me, like a “not all men” movie, but the phrase has been contorted into the equally-redundant “see, women do it too”, which doesn’t really feel as helpful, in the grand scheme of things, as something that could have been more complex, more subtle, and ultimately more effective, which I feel is owed to any viewer affected by the issues at the heart of the film.
I guess, rightly or wrongly, I viewed this with a raised eyebrow because it is a story I feel should have been left at the back of a queue for a while. I don’t think we have had enough films properly showcasing other scenarios yet, whether it is more powerful men being held to account or other common victims having their voices heard (the statistics regarding assault and abuse of trans people, for example, always seem to be omitted from this bleak landscape).
Tár has one towering performance, and sterling work from others onscreen, but it doesn’t actually have enough beneath the surface to make you feel that it is worth 2 1/2 hours of your time. I would still recommend it, and think Blanchett will continue to receive a lot of well-deserved credit for her portrayal of such a sharp and “jagged” character, but it’s not actually a great film.
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