Film Review: Tár [some spoilers]

Being a classical musician, of course I was intrigued about the film “Tár” about a leading orchestral conductor who gets “canceled” after several inappropriate incidents. I am a Cate Blanchett fan, as she is an incredible, versatile actress who has the physicality to embody any character she plays (her Bob Dylan portrayal was the best in “I’m Not There,” better than any of the men!) Normally, I avoid films with a much higher critics’ rating than audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as this usually means the films are frankly quite boring, “critics’ darlings” that are pretentious and hard to watch. Unfortunately, this was the case with “Tár.” It raises more questions than it has time to answer and doesn’t live up to its potential.

The film is too long. At nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, the pace drags, and the film would have gained urgency had it been cut down by 45 minutes to an hour. Director Todd Field spends too much time exalting and glorifying the character of Lydia Tár at the beginning. Yes, we get it–she is one of the top conductors in the world, on par with Nézet-Séguin or MTT or Salonen. Yes, she is a woman conductor of top-tier orchestras, still a rarity these days, in the vein of Marin Alsop (whom the character seems to resemble in some ways) or JoAnn Falletta. Yes, the film needs to set her up at someone great so we can see her downfall and her abuse of power. But it all gets to be too much. As any writer knows, overdoing things and a lack of subtlety is a sign of a sophomoric work. It doesn’t trust the reader or viewer to grasp that Tár is great, and instead hits them over the head with the point. This is just one example of Field’s heavy-handed directing.

What is unique is the character herself, and a film that puts a strong woman at the center and shows that women can abuse power too, not just men: successful people of all orientations are guilty of sexual harassment and can have partners/spouses who enable their bad behavior, as is implied in this film with her wife Sharon, who never really speaks up till the end. Tár prefers young women whom she can mentor and then get involved with, as we can see with her sycophant assistant, Francesca and then the Russian cellist Olga. This is her pattern, and it keeps playing out through the film as we see from incidents both past and present. But some viewers might ask why feminism and power must be conflated with lesbianism. Does a woman have to go to a man’s tailor and wear suits to be taken seriously in a man’s world? Can she not be feminine and charismatic? Blanchett’s portrayal at times feels two-dimensional and a bit stereotyped, Murphy Brown 2.0.

The whole point is to set Tár up to be canceled for her misdeeds. But the director piles on too many themes that do not get to be explored in detail and ultimately get the short shrift. Each one is worthy of a whole film in and of itself. Tár makes insensitive remarks to a BIPOC, pangender conducting student in a masterclass and steamrollers over him when he protests what she has said. But the consequences are only returned to much later in the film. This is a very rich incident that raises so many complex questions. But perhaps the most interesting yet minimally-addressed incident in her past is the suicide of her former mentee, Krista Taylor, whom Tár was romantically involved with. She dumped Krista and viciously sabotaged her career. And she hires a new cellist in unprofessional ways and grants her opportunities that are clearly due to favoritism and romantic interest. Again, as above, this feels sophomoric because it is overdone and doesn’t trust the viewer to “get it.”

Blanchett is indeed a wonderful actress, with the dependable Nina Hoss as her long-suffering/enabling wife, as she has the charisma and gravitas to pull off the formidable lead role. The problems come when she is involved with music. Consider her interminable monologue with Adam Gopnik–it sounds rehearsed, orated, and not something introspective or spontaneous. A musician would likely go into an introverted place when talking about composers, but Blanchett makes the choice to give a speech that sounds formal. When conducting, her movements are almost comical, more like a caricature of how a conductor moves than how a conductor really moves (having played in orchestras and under conductors since childhood, this is something I’m familiar with). That a director would have not gotten a more accurate performance out of Blanchett, especially a director who has musical training, is surprising. 

I do give Field credit for the alternate reality world he has created in the film, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief for his having shown a conductor having more decision-making power than a conductor would in real life. But the execution is so poor in this film. It wasted a fantastic, formidable premise, featured a script that was all over the place, and kept a grim, distant tone that felt alienating and odd (especially when a film is about music and relationships, two of the most intimate, personal things in life). In all, a disappointment.

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