When Power Yields To A Mirror
Many strings are plucked and pulled in the fascinating, phenomenal, frustrating “Tar”
Movie Review: “Tar”
by Omar Moore
October 13, 2022
Is a person with power liberated?
What exactly does a conductor have control of?
These are two of the questions swirling around in my mind after watching Todd Field’s intensely layered epic “Tar”, a sensational, stunning and confounding experience. “Tar”, which follows the literal and figurative exploits of vituperative world-renowned conductor and European classical music composer Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett), principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (the Dresdner Philharmonie is the film’s venue.) “If you want to dance the mask you must service the composer!”, Tar declares to a vast but sparsely populated room of her Julliard students. The “service the composer” part has overtones of sexual innuendo and power. Both, especially the latter, may factor into the proceedings.
When Lydia Tar is first introduced in a lengthy honors serenade by real-life New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (“if you’re here then you already know who she is”) the moment feels more like an outsized manifestation of Tar’s own mind, consciousness, ego and vainglory than a scene of a public event. The audience attending the Tar-Gopnik Big Apple conversation is shrouded in darkness. Tar expertly waxes on with the utmost confidence about her domain, European music influences, and about time and her power as a conductor to start and stop it. “You cannot start without me”, Tar declares with a sniff of arrogance. This New York New Yorker audience, and the world for that matter, is Tar’s orchestra, one orchestra of many. Meanwhile, Tar is glimpsed by people who have experienced and endured her and registered some very conclusive opinions. “Lydia Tar is many things,” quips Mr. Gopnik in a deftly snarky manner. (The clues about Tar already emerge.) In an ominous shot we see that someone is watching Tar from the bleacher seats in this vast New York hall, its backdrop blurred. All perhaps, is not exactly copacetic in Tar-dom.
Tar, prepping her live recorded performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphonie No. 5, has her entanglements: a coterie of romantically involved personal assistants, most recently a tentative and dissatisfied Francesca (Noemie Merlant) who barely keeps Tar’s shenanigans at bay; Sharon, Tar’s long-time spouse and first violin orchestral musician (Nina Hoss, in a brilliantly understated performance) is Tar’s beleaguered personal confidant. Tar, a vigorous, insidious power player who says she has trouble thinking, seeks the counsel of a retired male conductor (a dryly witty Julian Glover) who’s had close shaves with undetailed accusations of impropriety. “I’m out of the game!” he defiantly blurts at a lunchtime meeting. Tar, a self-loather who gives herself a choice description, surrounds herself with other men in the orchestral discipline: Knut (Fabian Dirr), who without his glasses bears a fleeting resemblance to Mahler, and the assiduous Sebastian (Allan Corduner), whose name can be found in that of the legendary German classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
It is worthwhile asking: do reckonings ever really come to powerful people? I’m not sure “Tar” sufficiently answers that question, but the film tells us that being drunk with power doesn’t come without a hangover or tarring and feathering.
The riveting near three-hour enterprise Mr. Field has crafted travels fast. “Tar” is rigorously structured in process; in explaining it, showing it and detailing the intricacies of (and fallout from) it. Even “Tar”’s opening displays credits you normally see at the end of a film. It’s a clever method from the director; he knows that most moviegoing audiences despise sitting through a showing of a fulsome list of contributors to the cinematic process — specifically the disregard filmgoing audiences generally have for watching the entirety of a film’s end credits. Yet “Tar”’s greatest strength aside from Cate Blanchett’s show-stopping prowess and excellence as Tar, the first female principal conductor in German history, is in keeping us off-balance. At times “Tar” plays as a psychodrama, a thriller, a fantasy, an unseen person’s assessment of a crude, flagrantly unreliable narrator and still at other times as subtle horror. Ultimately “Tar” is best enjoyed as a wickedly macabre comedy. A comedy you don’t need to laugh out loudly about to find funny.
Cold, haunting and austere, “Tar”, which also feels biblical, is clearly about power and process but is more about two other “p”s: perception and proportion. Florian Hoffmeister’s impressive, spartan camerawork showcases depth, shallowness, distance and closeness, showing a world of abusive power that is imbalanced and confining. People glimpse, appease and stomach a ruthless Lydia Tar. Her Socratic method-like throttling of a nervous, soft-spoken Black pansexual student who is no fan of white male European classical composers and their immorality, is brutal and horrifying. A memorable line in Mr. Field’s film, for which he wrote the screenplay — is spoken in that same hall of Tar’s students. It is a line that some viewers I saw the film with applauded lustily. It is a line that still has me spinning.
Mr. Field’s film indulges a well-trodden movie path of flawed or tortured genius, of the personal and private lives of revered artists and the supposed fine line separating them. I’d argue though, that no “fine line” exists and these “qualities” in human beings, unpleasant and worse, bind artist and person as one and the same. Whether the fictional Lydia Tar or a real cretin (to put it very mildly) like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein — Tar of course, obviously isn’t in the same solar system as those appalling other three—being “flawed” alone simply isn’t up for debate. (Mr. Field ruptures my argument by cinematically prizing apart the identities of public artist and private human in a “Three Faces Of Eve”-stylish way, though the anti-social behaviors thanks to Ms. Blanchett’s full-blooded endeavor, will obliterate any conceivable line between supposed separate identities.)
With its anagrams, riddles, labyrinthian tunnels of burrowing, “Tar” is an intriguing puzzle and a metaphor for image, control, precision and the absurd, among other things. Mr. Field quietly dares the moviegoing audience to abide by this voluble human protagonist for two hours and thirty-eight minutes. He doesn’t beg you to, though. He directs. You decide. This isn’t the Michael Haneke Express school of filmmaking; “Tar” is far less scornful and punishing and Mr. Field is neater, open and more empathetic. Though rough edges exist in “Tar” there’s never the abrasiveness or silent condemnation percolating in Mr. Haneke’s canon of work.
“Tar” looks at technology, which has its indicting power over an old-school pillar of accomplished tutelage who will contemptibly rail against modern technology and Gen Z manipulation. Technology, “Tar” suggests or at least its title character may posit, destroys process and can compromise power. (When George Floyd’s execution occurred in 2020, caught unflinchingly on cellphone video by a teenager, that capturing of a state-sanctioned killing was crucial to ending a Minneapolis cop’s continuous murderous abuse of power.) With such digital video and social media malfeasant conductors of any age don’t stand a chance. As Tar herself wryly advises a child, “everyone can’t be a conductor.” (Oh yes, they can, Lydia.)
With such a layered view of process Mr. Field, who hadn’t directed a film since “Little Children” in 2006, may be commenting on filmmaking as much as conducting. Directors of films are obviously conductors. Filmmaking is nothing if not a process. With “Tar” Mr. Field may have constructed a fever dream drama. His visual storytelling stylings owe much to Terrence Malick (particularly “The Thin Red Line” and “Knight Of Cups” — the latter of which Ms. Blanchett starred in) and especially Stanley Kubrick, for whom Mr. Field acted in the 1999 film “Eyes Wide Shut”, based on the Arthur Schnitzler book Dream Story. Mr. Field isn’t interested in enforcing imagery for decoration or stylization's sake as much as he is portraying the psychology and internal torment of a feral artist on a fragile pedestal. Uneasy lies the head that devours the power crown.
Ever the rationalizer, Lydia Tar (her last name is an “s” short of the words “Tsar” and “star”) has a semblance of conscience, but Ms. Blanchett’s performance is so well-conceived Tar doesn’t appear especially self-aware at times, rather more automatic (and autocratic.) Tar sublimates her gender. (Is Tar a misogynist? Perhaps.) She steals. She lies. She sneers. She manipulates. She fears. She is given a gift that repulses her. In chronicling Lydia Tar Mr. Field achieves a balance and non-judgment that is enthrallingly compassionate and agonizingly painful. As a film “Tar” is in some measure removed from theatrical trappings but one or two scenes are depicted like scenes in a stage play. Though largely avoiding scenery-chewing, Ms. Blanchett occasionally punctuates a bit of theatre in her performance, sharply enough to be jolting, amusing and chilling.
Mr. Field’s punctilious writing has a satirical bite augmented by Ms. Blanchett’s fine work. The director’s exacting dialogue, laced with the title character’s sarcasm, contempt, mockery, irony and naivete, is efficiently charted across a detritus-strewn chessboard. There’s a bluntness to the film’s rhythm but it works for the overall chilly atmosphere Mr. Field orchestrates. Ms. Blanchett, director of her Australian theatre company, in “Tar”, her best film work yet, dives into all of this with relish. She learned to compose, play piano, speak German and does all three with aplomb. Ms. Blanchett’s dexterity and pugilistic onscreen character dovetails expertly with Mr. Field’s respectful observances of time, space, sound and solitude. Ms. Blanchett plays Lydia Tar, but the character feels like a volcanic force, even in the smallest gestures Ms. Blanchett gives her. It is difficult not to be enraptured by this filmmaking duo’s unstilted creation of discord even if you’ve not the faintest idea what it is you’re watching.
Admittedly, when I first saw “Tar” I was underwhelmed. (I’d strongly advise you not to watch the film’s teaser trailers — I made that mistake and paid the price. Go into “Tar” as cold as possible.) On second viewing came the masterpiece that turned me around completely. The Field-Blanchett collaboration forms a tension that unearths the uncomfortable acid comedy “Tar” pours into your lap. Hildur Gudnadottir’s stunning music score at times arrives unexpectedly. The richness of edgy, sonorous tempo and sensation Ms. Gudnadottir renders fits like a glove to the coolness and caution of the film’s scenes. Amid character volubility, emotion and string-pulling and plucking, the cadences and beats in her score accentuates the conceits, contours and contretemps of the film’s protagonist.
A plot about a mysterious former conductor feels at first disconnected from the methodical discipline editor Monika Willi employs, until it emerges significantly and unavoidably. The strands creep up on and entangle you. Sophie Kaur, an accomplished cellist in Germany, makes her acting debut as an astute young musician whose eagerness for success catch Tar’s eye. Ms. Kaur plays her own music in the film.
As “Tar” unfolds it may be helpful to ask yourself: is the main character cut from whole cloth? Who is constructing and conducting this story’s events? Is Lydia Tar frozen in time or looking back at her faded nostalgic past? Is she grandiose and exaggerated? Is she real? Is she inventing her own triumphs and glories? Is someone else? Are we watching Tar’s fanciful or frightful imagination? Is “Tar” an anonymous character’s last will and testament about the conductor or a view of female power in a patriarchal world? Are we watching someone running away from themselves? (There are continuous shots of Tar running through what looks like an empty, abandoned underpass.) Or all of the above?
I couldn’t help but submit to and revel in Mr. Field’s cinematic triumph. “Tar” provokes endless computations, conundrums and counterpunches. This cheeky, savage drama demands your careful attention. Maybe the hands of time always govern and are the ultimate power in “Tar” after all.
Also with: Mark Strong, Sylvia Flote, Mila Bogojevic, Zethphan Smith-Gneist.
“Tar” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for some language and brief nudity. The film’s running time is two hours and 38 minutes. Prepare for an intense burrowing. “Tar” is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York and opens in San Francisco and several other cities this Thursday evening (October 13.) “Tar” expands its release across the U.S. and Canada on October 28.
Omar Moore’s movie podcast is The Popcorn Reel — on Apple, Stitcher and other platforms