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Tár is a Modern Downfall Take for the Ages

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit:  Courtesy of Focus Features

Tár preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

Tár is 2022’s best film”

American films just aren’t like this anymore. A provocative thriller that has no easy answers that will have you enthralled over its 158-minute runtime. Todd Field returns after a 16-year absence from cinema with the year’s best film. A tangled web of clashing ideas that has sparked some of the best film writing around an American film in who knows how long. Field has crafted a film of ideas that gives nothing to the audience easily, but rewards all who view this strange and entrancing object.

Tár follows revered composer Lydia Tár (a never better Cate Blanchett) in the weeks leading up to her performance of Mahler’s 5th, the final of five performances she is conducting. Lydia has achieved every possible landmark in her industry; from gaining a coveted EGOT, to commanding the Berlin Philharmonic, but there is an air of paranoia that persists around her that feels beyond imposter syndrome.

Surrounding Lydia is her assistant and aspiring conductor Francesca (Noemie Merlant), wife and first chair Sharon (Nina Hoss), as well as a suite of individuals jockeying to maintain within Lydia’s enormous orbit. Over the course of the film we view how Lydia wields the power she exudes, and how she is potentially haunted by those she has impacted to get to where she is.

Todd Field has been crafting Tár for 10 years but, the film feels potently of the moment with its reflections on power dynamics in the arts. A work that argues for the powerful difference between ambiguity and vagueness, allowing room for the audience to grow a relationship with these characters and this world whilst never frustrating with its pacing and decisions.

Starting the film with the full reverse order credits is a bold artistic statement the filmmakers are making from the jump. By democratising the opening moments of Tár —in a similar way Jonathon Demme repeatedly shows the crew in the masterpiece Stop Making Sense (1984)— we are told to question the auteur theory dominance in our culture, not just in film but in all aspects of the arts. Many views online about the film have focused on Field siding too heavily with Lydia, so it is crucial to keep this simple opening sequence in mind.

This sequence is immediately followed by Adam Gopnik interviewing Lydia at the New Yorker Festival panel, beginning by reading out her exhaustive CV like it were tomes handed down from Olympus. We see Lydia fully in her element here, commanding a crowd, self aggrandising during these lengthy monologues that border on godlike comparisons, stating that “you cannot start without me, I start the clock.”

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Tár dances through a thrilling performance by Cate Blanchett in some of the best scenes an American filmmaker has put on screen in years, notably one extraordinary class at Juilliard that will put you on both sides of the Lydia debate that defines the film.

The density of Tár is its greatest strength, allowing post viewing writing online to be deeply rewarding, as long as you avoid anything proclaiming definitive answers about the film, as Field has worked tirelessly to support many interpretations about a host of elements.

It feels reductive to talk about Tár in the terms of modern cancel culture discourse, as Field is asking much deeper personal questions about artists and the worlds they inhabit and the murky power structures they operate in. Stories like Tár have been around forever, with cinematic comparisons that could be made to Raging Bull (1980), or even Goodfellas (1990). Like moths attracted to a great light, Lydia attracts those that want to wield her power for their own means, while we can also see how she was once the moth through her relationship with Andris (Julian Glover).

We hear brief mention of how Lydia and Sharon work their way to the top of the Berlin symphony through potentially manipulative means, and are now seeing those around Lydia get their hands dirty to improve their stature. There is a conspiratorial reading that could be made of Francesca and Olga setting up Lydia to take her down that is fascinating and rewarding.

It’s hard to not feel conspiratorial about the people around Lydia who she seemingly boosted to their positions, which is very much by design. We feel conspiratorial because she feels constantly conspired against. Field has crafted a highly subjective viewing experience that we are dropped in the middle of that feels cool and sterilised, an intricately difficult balance that needs to be celebrated. There are so many readings to be made from Tár because of this unique viewing experience.

Florian Hoffmeister’s work as cinematographer on Tár is what allows the measured and off putting atmosphere the film exudes, to seep into your skin. Many scenes frame Lydia either from behind or dwarfed compared to the lavish arts centres and rooms she orbits. Hoffmeister shoots most of the film statically, with the only handheld or composed camera movements occurring during the pivotal moments of tension. These are simple but considered choices that greatly heighten the tension of these scenes in a film that has conditioned us to move at a measured pace.

The film is deeply rewarding on repeat viewings, especially with the subtle spiritual aspects of Lydia’s character that heighten the connection she has to Krysta Taylor, and to the more ethereal gothic horror genre moves that propel Tár’s latter stages.

Todd Field’s TÁR will have its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Florian Hoffmeister / Focus Features

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Florian Hoffmeister / Focus Features

Tár unfolds in its second half to be more of a ghost story, with a certain Edgar Allen Poe-style gothic horror atmosphere enveloping Lydia. Familiar places she once moved through with ease at the beginning of the film are now filled with anxiety and dread. The filmmaking itself has evolved since a pivotal scene in the underground depths of Berlin, where the smooth, coldly composed shots are now more handheld and tighter on Lydia — a strong subjective tone. The sounds have also been altered to capture Lydia’s inner psyche, heightening sounds like the metronome and her neighbours heart monitor.

In a time where orchestral music is struggling to find an audience, the rarefied air Lydia glides through is on thin ice. The much debated final shot of the film can be viewed in many ways, but it’s interesting to see where Lydia is finally left is in conducting video game music to a packed crowd, the newest way audiences have begun returning to orchestral music in the last 10 years.

Tár asks difficult questions about the true justice a figure like Lydia deserves, and where she is left seems to divide many viewers. Is her final performance, orchestrating a Monster Hunter performance to a fully cosplaying crowd in an Asian country a real punishment, or has she simply been moved to a different aspect of her industry that she will be able to use her power to exploit those around her?

Tony Gilroy described the film as “Hard and perfect on the outside. Mayhem brewing within. Masterwork.” These competing forces of interiority and external poise is the powerful tempest that builds throughout Tár, creating a singular viewing experience, and one of the year’s best films.

Tár opens nationally from the 26th of January, 2023.


Darcy Read

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