Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) isn’t the first cinematic protagonist whose entire being seems designed to be disagreeable, but it’s difficult to tell if writer-director Todd Field, making his first movie in almost two decades, wants the viewer to pick up on this intention so early in the game. Tár is a world-class orchestra conductor whose intelligence and talent are unquestioned, and right away Field makes this clear with a live interview that presents Tár’s intelligence and talent in such unimpeachable terms that the viewer can’t help but wonder if something isn’t afoot. Can anyone be this self-assured about not only their art, but their existence as a very important person? Part of the wonder of Lydia Tár is all the aspects of her public persona that might have been a drag on her career in the past—her gender, her homosexuality (not that it hurt Lenny, but he kept it under wraps), her arrogance and extravagance—are flaunted. After all, she lives in Berlin (“the place to be”), where she is music director of the “greatest orchestra in the world,” in palatial splendor with her romantic partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who also happens to be the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert master. At the moment the movie takes place, Tár is embarking on two of the biggest events of her career: Publishing her memoir and recording a definitive interpretation of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.
Field’s indications that all isn’t right in the realm of Tár have a telegraphed quality that call attention to themselves, and so the viewer simply waits for the other shoe to drop. The first indication is when Tár, teaching a Julliard class of wannabe conductors, ridicules a Black student for not professing the proper respect for Bach because to the student Bach is the standard bearer for the white patriarchy in music. The second indication is her dismissive and often condescending treatment of her assistant, Francesca (Noemie Merlant), who can’t seem to do anything right; or, more exactly, isn’t perfect enough for Tár, the ultimate self-styled perfectionist. Eventually, we come to the conclusion that the videos that pop up throughout the movie of Tár acting improperly in various circumstances public and private are the work of Francesca, whose resentments come to a boil after Tár promotes a young Russian cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), over much more seasoned professionals to play the Elgar concerto with the Berlin Phil. Field’s playfulness comes into its own in this plot turn because the viewer is meant to understand that Tár is right—Olga is more exciting and compelling for this endeavor than any of the famous veterans being pushed by management, but certain parties, mainly Francesca, see it as yet another example of Tár using her power to take advantage of an attractive young woman, and it proves to be the last straw.
Much has been made of Tár’s comeuppance and Field’s interrogation of so-called cancel culture, and so his conditioning of the audience’s gag reflex whenever Tár/Blanchett becomes too full of herself is itself disagreeable. Visually and aurally, Tár is flawless. It flows as gracefully as a Berlin Phil performance, and the accumulation of detail that precedes Tár’s fall maintain the action and dialogue at a fever pitch. But this precision gives the overall development a predetermined quality that lets the movie down. At one point, Tár’s working-class American upbringing is exposed in a way that suggests she is ashamed of it, and you wish Field had explored this aspect more, even if it’s a theme that’s been done many times before. I’m sure the director, whose self-assurance is every bit as indomitable as his subject’s, could have made this old theme fresh again.
In English, German and French. Opens May 12 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).
Tár home page in Japanese
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