Minor Chord Blanchett is a Major Oscar Contender
DIRECTED BY TODD FIELD/2022
When does it end? It’s all over before it starts. This isn’t just evident in director Todd Field’s highly unconventional decision to frontload the film’s closing credits, and in largely reverse order. We can also glean from the title character herself, the world-famous conductor Lydia Tár (as portrayed by the great Cate Blanchett), that there is nothing more to for her to accomplish. As the first-ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, it seems there’s no applicable award she hasn’t won, no prestigious honor she’s not received. We know this thanks to a career-spanning longform interview conducted before a rapt audience.
The interview is also personally revelatory of Tár- as it had better be, considering the size of its footprint within the film’s chronology. Also though, we’re thrust into the weeds of classical composers, pieces, and conductors both past and present. Her depth of knowledge of the history of her field is ever on display. Tár spares nothing in this early plunge into the “high culture” deep end, and it’s up to us to either sink or swim. And so, this lauded 2022 festival buzzer and early awards season staple reveals itself to be NPR: The Movie. To drive that home, Lydia Tár is glimpsed casually listening to herself being interviewed by no less than Alec Baldwin.
But that’s not it at all. As Tár unspools, so too does Tár. This most direct of character studies slowly but most assuredly contorts into… something else. At a decompressed two hours and thirty-eight minutes, it’s got plenty of time to evolve. Or devolve. Such is the natural pace of either ‘volve, and Todd Field knows it. There’s an odd confidence in his direction of Tár. While some grouse about the length as something interminable, for our protagonist, the events play out far, far longer. For the filmmaker, he’s obviously having a field day confounding whomever. Though this is not at all a confounding work.
Lydia Tár, by the way, is not a real person. Although from the film’s title to the subject matter to the way she’s initially presented, it’s understandable that one might assume that this is yet another glossy biopic. The point is made that numerous female maestros have preceded her in the (real) world, though the character is none of them specifically. She is, however, pieces of many, from all walks of life. What can definitely be stated here, or anywhere, is that Blanchett not only lives up to her brilliant reputation, but surpasses even that. Likeability and watchability are thankfully two different things when it comes to characters, and Blanchett’s Tár run both to separate extremes. Hate her as you might, you can’t look away from her torrents of hubris, blunt jabs, or especially the flailing physical drama when she’s leading a symphony through music. (Her life’s passion? Mahler). That’s Blanchett really conducting the Dresden orchestra, hair waving and wand a-flying.
Tár’s inability, particularly as an extremely powerful lesbian wife (of her concertmaster, played by the also great Nina Hoss) and parent, to relate to the younger generation’s concerns (hang ups?) over the passed-down historical dominance of the “cis white male” composers make her the worthy subject that she is. There’s a collision here somewhere, of a woman radically unlike so many others, and yet given opportunities so very rare for one of her internal plumbing, whatever her sexual preference. In a fantastic unbroken single shot, she can storm around the conservatory sizing up and tearing down students and their newfangled “sensitivities” derived from “social media”… and reap the whirlwind that may follow. Though, depending upon one’s own positions and views, there undoubtedly are truths to be had in her tirades. But the fallout of her sharp dominance isn’t the real bitch in the picture. That is, according entirely to one of her many disenfranchised underlings.
As Tár butts up against off-the-moment issues that bristle with the character’s ingrained outlook and, yes, her entitlement, the question of directorial sympathies can’t help but arise. It’s curious how Field seems to be engaging far afield comparisons between his job and Lydia Tár’s. Regardless of that observation, the former issue still lingers. And lingers it does. This isn’t a film to give answers, but it will conduct our attention, our patience, our ethics, and even our cultural politics, if just a little. Or maybe a lot. There’s a death, off screen. To what degree is Tár responsible for the suicide of Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote)? Is it bad that we might not even be sure who the adamantly rejected student is/was? We observe again and again how the political climbings of this most upper crust pantheon of arts/entertainment are enabled by claws-out Darwinism. Skin must be thick. But where are the brakes? Beautifully portraying the more prominent characters that get caught in the film’s wakes are Noémie Merlant as Tár’s dutiful assistant, Julian Glover as Tár’s predecessor, and Allan Corduner as Tár’s assistant conductor.
It’s thankfully no longer acceptable to size up such a woman by saying “It’s a man’s world, so she dresses like one”. The sticky story of Lydia Tár, if that is her name, takes us to where identity, clout, and conduct collide. It’s anything but surface, and is rather remarkable.