Cate Blanchett gives a fantastic, award-worthy performance in Tár, an artistic, atmospheric, and haunting psychological drama.
Todd Field’s first film since 2006’s In the Bedroom is the type of arthouse picture that carries a seemingly complex level of depth – all depending on the angle you take when watching. It almost goes without saying, but Tár is best approached knowing that it is far from an easily digestible drama crafted for broad appeal. Depending on one’s willingness to engage with the material, there’s a lot here to decipher and take in.
The plot is relatively simple. Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, a hugely acclaimed composer and conductor, who’s reached very high levels of success during her career. She’s an EGOT winner – the term given to people who have earned an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award. Early on in the film, during an extended interview sequence, we are given a chance to not only hear about her achievements, but to analyse her high level of self-confidence, some could argue a bit of a superiority complex, and the way she looks at the artistry of music and her role within it. As with much of the film, this particular scene offers up hints of her potentially troubling persona and touches on some of the themes that we’ll be tackling in various ways before the credits roll.
As the film goes on, in firmly measured form, Field unveils more of our character. We learn that Tár is chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, has a hard-working personal assistant, Francesca (played by Noémie Merlant), is married to Sharon (Nina Hoss), and that they have an adopted daughter. The pieces are placed, as it becomes clear, on very shaky ground. Without giving much away, Tár’s status and relationships are put at risk – and, maybe, rightly so. Furthermore, she is starting to experience troubling occurrences. What’s really going on? Is it deserved? Who, if anyone, is spying on her? Is her psyche fracturing? And how exactly are we, the audience, meant to take what’s happening to our lead character?
With Tár, Field and Blanchett give us an unreliable protagonist. She could, depending on what you draw from the events and the fickle revelations, even be an antagonist. With his first original screenplay written in solo capacity, Field has penned a fascinating film that I found, on occasion, to be frustratingly obscure, and yet it held a magnetic strength that drew me in, keeping me focused on every sentence and precise frame as I looked for meaning. As the credits rolled, I wasn’t too sure if I had gathered what really went down, nor what Field’s ultimate theme was; should I just leave it all at face value – it was literal and what we saw was just that – or were there metaphors, symbolism, discussion points scattered throughout, begging to be deconstructed? To the film’s major credit, it’s continued to live on in my mind. I’ve continued to decipher it in my own way. I’ve talked to friends about it. And I’ve looked for articles about it, reading other opinions that highlight things that I hadn’t noticed or considered.
The film has a lot to say regarding the corruptive nature of power, about how abuse can be dealt out by those in high positions, about the current era of cancel culture and its merits, about the blinding aspects of an overgrown ego, about the haunting nature of guilt. Some points Field wants to make clearly; others, he wants you to work for or discover how you see fit.
Here, Field brings to mind some of the work by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, such as the writer-director’s exquisitely particular framing, his arm’s-length coldness, his harsh symbolism, and how he’s presented humanity’s relationship with technology and the camera. If you’ll excuse my slight tangent, I highly suggest you seek out Michael Haneke’s work; challenging, off-putting, but undeniably striking cinema.
Blanchett continues to showcase why she’s among the greatest actors working today. The Aussie star gives us a complex persona with Lydia Tár, putting in what looks like exhausting work as this troubled, sometimes detestable person. This is a character study on an unlikeable character – someone who could be a truly bad person, and yet Blanchett’s performance holds us with her, wanting to see just what lies ahead. As with Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (yes, I know, a very different beast), it becomes increasingly clear with Blanchett that we’re not following someone on the good side of the moral spectrum, but the power of strong writing and brilliant acting has us watching their every turn.
It may sound obvious, but Tár is not the type of film that I would easily recommend to a buddy without knowing their cinematic tastes first. While I did find Tár to be a very strong film, I did find there was a distancing coldness to Field’s approach that kept me emotionally at bay for much of it. I also found that I was a little burnt out by the three-quarter mark, wanting the crescendo to hit once the grounding notes were well established. Nevertheless, there’s an impressive level of cinematic mastery on display here, plus, what an incredible performance by Blanchett.