Getting lost in a film is what the art form is supposed to accomplish. You disappear into the protagonists’ lives and environments; you admonish the antagonist. These characters elicit empathy and sympathy when appropriate. This is especially critical when the protagonist is utterly opposite from yourself, or the antagonist slowly comes to the surface of a story. These qualities define Cate Blanchett’s wonderfully dynamic Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s third film, TÁR, expanding this weekend before a national rollout at the end of October.
In a role written specifically for her, Blanchett defines the virtuosic titular character within an inch of her life. The actress is poised, rigid, and demanding. The surface is blasé, determined, committed, and compartmentalized, as examined in an early scene of the film where the character, an accomplished composer/conductor in her own right, is interviewed about an upcoming production of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Blanchett is direct, matter-of-factly so; I nearly cringed in my seat as she answered the interviewers’ questions.
Yet, her answers draw you further into Field’s story. There is no hiding from this taskmaster of a conductor, nor is there hiding from Field’s direction: concise and with a purpose. Therefore, it is interesting that the next scene is set in a lecture hall, where Tár is a guest lecturer in a room full of young, impressionable college-aged kids. True to the character’s name, admonishment comes first, and the lessons learned come second, as she berates a student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who wouldn’t commit to finding his form in composing a piece of music from someone whom he considered despicable.
Field’s dialogue flourishes with a darkly comedic tone, Florian Hoffmeister’s long camera movements, and Blanchett’s performance are all pitch-perfect. The air in the hall is still, yet you can hear a pin drop, signifying the character’s downfall to come. In private, Tár’s façade drops. She is still demanding of her assistant, Noémie Merlant’s Francesca Lentini; however, we see a rigidly relaxed Blanchett – her guard is always up. Field intentionally sets Francesca as a buffer between Tár and her outside world, allowing the character to remain composed for the story’s duration.
Slowly, we are introduced to other facets of Tár’s life – Nina Hoss as Sharon Goodnow, the Berlin Symphony’s concertmaster and Lydia’s wife, Allan Corduner as Sebastian Brix, Tár’s assistant conductor, Mark Strong as Eliot Kaplan, an investment banker and amateur conductor whose makeup and hairstyle made the actor nearly unrecognizable for a minute or two, and Julian Glover as Andris Davis, Tár’s mentor. These characters make up the strong, supporting notes in Tár’s life, and TÁR is an even stronger film for their presence.
Each of these characters needed to be strong because Blanchett is so strong; Tár towers over everyone she comes into contact with, a force to be reckoned with, an aspect reflected in the theatrical one sheet. Field and Blanchett litter Tár with fleeting moments of longing glances in crowded rooms. Yet, she always returns to Sharon. That is until Olga Metkina, a young Russian cellist, makes a play for a prominent seat in the orchestra, figuratively and literally. Olga, played by Sophie Kauer, doesn’t break Tár, yet she is another note in the passage. Olga could easily be compared to Vicky Krieps’ Alma Elson from Phantom Thread, disrupting the order with form and purpose. Field has as much control over TÁR’s symphony as Paul Thomas Anderson’s weaving of Reynolds Woodcock’s story in the former film.
TÁR reminds us that we all need to be put back into our respective places in the universe. It also underscores that karma can be a bitch when we least expect it. Field, having been an actor himself, is an actor’s director. His attention to detail comes out in Blanchett’s performance, especially in the characters surrounding Tár and the situations presented in the story.
This was the first film I’d seen from Field, so I didn’t know what to expect. After reading about his other films, I knew I’d be in for a treat.
Whether Field intended it or not, I couldn’t help but reflect on Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, specifically “A British Tar.” TÁR flirts with rigid, dictatorial attitudes in the Tár character, yet it accurately depicts Blanchett’s take on the character and her performance. The film is but a part of a larger symphony for life. However, Field finds a microcosm within the symphony, the competitive nature of power, that defines his film.
Within this rigidity, however, TÁR can feel one-note. Field’s composure as a director is so utterly refined that it is under the surface of the musicality of relationships, the horrors of opinions, respect for one another, and life itself that we feel the discordant harmonies realign. These themes underpin the brilliance of a deceptive surface, supported by Ms. Blanchett’s intoxicating performance.
Without becoming a tar myself, Focus avoided the marketing missteps of BROS in that there has been very little advertised about the film. From having an uncomposed project to the prospects of a life coming unglued, TÁR leaves the best parts of itself to be discovered by an audience.
Expanding to additional cities this weekend, including Phoenix, Todd Field’s TÁR might feel one-note. It is anything but, and I would sit down to another performance of his symphonies again. The Academy would undoubtedly do well to recognize Ms. Blanchett’s performance for her excellence in craft.
Directed by Todd Field
Written by Todd Field
Starring Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
R, 158 minutes, Focus Features