The highly praised new drama Tár is written, directed, and produced by Todd Field. With a long career as an actor and producer, he’s directed only three films so far, over many years: two previous prestigious dramas, In the Bedroom in 2001 and Little Children in 2006, and now sixteen years later, there’s Tár, which looks likely to be the most rapturously received one yet.
The film is beautifully shot in elegant neutral tones and features a slow, thoughtful, careful approach to contentious subject matter. It stars the always elegant and compelling Cate Blanchett in a tour de force performance as Lydia Tár , an internationally famous composer and conductor whose career and personal life implode when accusations of abusive behavior toward students and staff — as well as the sexual grooming of young women in exchange for advancement in the orchestra — result in her “cancelation.”
It’s guaranteed to earn many Academy Award nominations, for Blanchett in particular, but probably for Field as well. And Tár itself will almost certainly follow In the Bedroom and Little Children to Best Picture nominations.
I despised it.
Tár begins on a solemn black screen, then the title comes up in exquisitely tiny white letters, with an accent over the A that’s so wee it’s hardly visible. Twenty seconds in, looking at this flyspeck font, I thought, “I hate this film.”
But of course, that was a bit premature. So I sat through the remaining two hours and thirty-eight minutes patiently trying to understand the damn thing. If I hadn’t smuggled in fifteen thousand calories’ worth of Halloween candy, I’d never have made it. My rage grew so steadily, by the end, I could only endure the film by savagely eating Twizzlers and thinking of fancy ways to murder writer-director-producer Todd Field.
Admittedly, I have a long, tortured history with so-called art cinema. I was a cinephile very young, which means I was earnestly tutored by older cinephiles in avid film snobbery, a phase I thankfully outgrew. Then I studied film in grad school, and nothing shoves you back toward pointlessly snooty, lifeless views of cinema than that.
I followed up with a stint in independent film production, where earnest artiness tends to reign as well. I’ve been to dozens of film festivals, I’ve watched what seems like fifty thousand art films, and I no longer feel any knee-jerk reverence for this type of filmmaking. A certain number of them are great, or at least interesting. But don’t let the nice cinematography fool you: they’re every bit as likely to be awful as the most despised genre film ever ground out by a relentlessly commercial system.
Tár is Exhibit A when it comes to a certain kind of cashmere-wrapped creation that’s so high-toned, so monied, so classy, people automatically worship it. What they wouldn’t fall for in one of those snob-appeal car or perfume ads, they drool over when it’s a high-culture art event.
What’s tricky about Tár is that it leads you on, periodically, to think it’s functioning as a critique of that world. The opening scene is an excruciatingly long interview with Lydia Tár , conducted by longtime New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, playing himself all too convincingly. The interview is held in one of those posh, high-ceilinged, polished-wood spaces where affluent people go to worship the arts. A rapt audience looks on. And the tone of the interview is so pretentious, so fawning, so unendurably twee, it seems it can’t be anything but annihilating satire.
It’s showing Tár at her arrogant peak, surrounded by pop-eyed admirers and sated with self-regard. It’s actually the beginning of her fall from the heights, and the film seems to be about how her following “the rules” governing career success in the world of classical music has led to her destruction. These man-made rules are crudely transactional in nature — including sex in exchange for advancement — but glossed over by the opulent trappings of concert halls, bespoke hand-tailored suits, cosmopolitan haute cuisine, and rhetorically fancy reverence for music as a high art form.
Tár and her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), who’s also concertmaster/first violinist of the Berlin orchestra Tár conducts, have had their career struggles, especially when coming out as a lesbian couple in that ultraconservative world. But their willingness to play by the corrupt patriarchal “rules” makes them no less likely to pay the price when the actions that constitute their striving are called out as abusive transgressions by younger generations who’ve had it with “the rules.”
The film is paced like glacier movements during the Ice Age, but the real problem is the absolute opacity of the film toward its subject, beyond the obvious “it’s complicated.” We watch Lydia Tár in scenes where her behavior is terrible (callous to her neighbors, manipulative and self-serving with her assistant Francesca and other colleagues), and scenes where her behavior is loving and sympathetic (with her ailing wife, with her fearful daughter, with her elderly mentor). There’s a long, complex single-shot scene of her teaching a class at Juilliard in which she starts off rather well in an exchange of ideas with a student who wants no part of Bach, because they identify as “BIPOC pangender,” before she loses patience and becomes steadily more vicious. Edited footage of this scene goes viral on social media, making her conduct look even more abusive and inexcusable than it was.
We watch Lydia Tár jogging in three separate scenes, trying to run off her increasing stress as her career unravels. We see her prowling her huge, Brutalist masterpiece of an apartment night after night, driven to insomnia by stress that makes her hyperconscious of odd sounds — some of which turn out to be caused by an apparent stalker, a former member of a fellowship program whose career she’s accused of ruining. The apartment seems to grow darker and more labyrinthian as the film goes on, in the manner of a modern gothic melodrama, putting Tár in the sympathetic role of a gothic heroine, isolated, fearful, and suffering.
With her immense glamor, Blanchett ultimately makes a fabulous, martyred monster of the Tár character, perfectly placed in a world of high art where, the truism goes, monsters flourish because it so often seems genius goes along with it. That becomes an implied argument countering any satirical critique in individual scenes like the first one. The ultimate effect is that the film is so locked into the worldview shared by Tár, that even an apparently critical view of her transgressions has little power. It’s a posh, high-culture art film about the posh, high-culture world of classical music, with a final scene that expresses an eye-popping disdain for popular culture.
This overall tendency becomes clear late in the film when a forceful character finally arrives on the scene who doesn’t share in Tár’s way of looking at the world. For the duration of one hugely refreshing scene, anyway, it’s such a huge relief. That’s Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer), a young Russian cellist.
Already attracted to Metkina when she sees her in the restroom before her blind audition, Tár angles to get her a spot in the orchestra, and then a solo piece, and invites her to a venerable restaurant where legends of classical music have dined for generations, clearly expecting to overawe the young musician. Metkina picks up none of Tár’s cues and doesn’t seem to know she’s being invited to curry favor. She orders a hearty plate of veal instead of the restrained vegetarian dish urged upon her and chomps it down while stating her own views on music fearlessly.
The most appalling part of the film occurs at the end, when Tár’s career in the Western world is destroyed, and she’s been flown to some unnamed Southeast Asian city where she’ll be conducting a small orchestra. At first, I had a vague idea that this would turn out to be a possible way for her to redeem herself a bit, if she could just get out of that stultifying world of entrenched, exploitative, high-culture power, and salvage her stalled creativity, represented by her lack of progress on her latest composition — only a series of single, halting notes. Perhaps some fresh energy could be conveyed in street scenes full of lively people, and an orchestra with unexpectedly challenging talents, all signaled by a shift in the shooting style and tempo, away from the slow, swanky, stateliness Field favors.
But on the contrary, the scenes in Southeast Asia seem designed to be viewed with an attitude shared by Lydia Tár: that of a snob’s horror at how low she’s sunk. Practically every room is presented as low-ceilinged and dingy, with people framed at an unflattering, objectifying distance, interacting with Tár in awkward attitudes — a far cry from all that smugly polished confidence of the Gopnik interview.
It’s a film that’s shot, confusingly, in Lydia Vision.