There are movies that you admire especially upon rewatching but still leave you emotionally detached. The overall tone is artistic and elegant, the camera clever, editing seamless, fantasy sequences enhance the tension, and needless to say, superb acting delivered by the cast. You admire and appreciate the director’s execution, yet you’re not emotionally engaged. Tár is one such movies for me.
Writer director Todd Field’s masterpiece is a film packed with ideas and layered with symbolism conveyed through technical brilliance. It explores power and ambition, identity politics, the separation of the art from the artist, and cancel culture in our contemporary society. Using a phrase ubiquitous in this awards season, it is everything, everywhere, all at once.
At the beginning of the film, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) introduces conductor and composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by reading out a list of her accolades for his live audience and us, movie viewers who would see, in the next two and a half hours, how a radiant star fall from grace. As the film opens, Tár is at the summit of the classical music world, helming the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. A Harvard PhD, she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein in the emergence of her career, and is currently one of only 15 EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony); her upcoming book Tár on Tár will no doubt be a bestseller.
Field’s feature is nominated for six Oscars in this awards season. It is a forceful narrative and an astute study of power set within an artistic and cultured realm. Blanchett’s Tár embodied success driven by ambition and sustained by ruthless arrogance. She may appear courteous and mild mannered, and that’s where the danger lies. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.
From the beginning of the movie, the sequence of the custom tailoring of her suit––a symbol of power––sets the premise. The film is not about gender politics, for Tár’s position is a given; she is already at the podium leading a world renown orchestra and is hailed as one of the best living composers.
There are, of course, higher mountains to scale. The self-propelled driving force soon turns Tár into a delusional egotist, her self-will overriding all that comes in her way, destroying not just her career but her relationship with her spouse Sharon (Nina Hoss), concert-master in the orchestra. Field wrote the screenplay with Blanchett in mind. He had mentioned in an interview that if she declined the role, he would not go ahead with the movie. Blanchett delivers with convincing mastery.
While being a fictional character, Tár embodies some real-life issues with much relevance in contemporary society. Her being in a lesbian marriage exemplifies the fact that power can corrupt regardless of gender and sexual orientation. She has the power to endow opportunities and thereby raising the career of young musicians to new heights, or, destroy them. Her obsession with success soon becomes unmanageable, distorting her view of reality, pulling her into the abyss of delusion and even madness.
Among the various issues the film touches on, the Juilliard teaching scene is particularly telling. Tár is teaching a conducting class in a lecture theatre. The camera expertly captures the ten-minute scene with one long take (no cutting). The blocking of the two main characters––Tár and the student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist)––speaks volumes.
Max chooses a contemporary piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir to conduct. Stopping him midway, Tár brings up the importance of Bach’s work, sitting down beside him as equal to discuss and ask if he would consider conducting a Bach piece. Here’s Max’s response:
“Honestly, as a BIPOC, pangender person, I’d say Bach’s misogenystic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.” He’s referring to the composer having had fathered 21 offsprings.
Boycotting Bach for his brood of children?
Here’s Tár’s restrained response: “I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skill on the marital bed has to do with [his Mass in] B minor.” Pointing out the issue of separating the art from the artist.
Drawing out the thought in Max, she says: “Can classical music written by a bunch of straight Austro-German church going white guys exalt us?” To answer that, she invites Max to sit by her side at the piano, going through with him some Bach pieces. To her credit, in both instances, her persuasion is gentle and egalitarian as the camera captures teacher and student sitting at the same level.
Max’s viewpoint is a biting issue today: can a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), pangender person acknowledge the contribution of straight, ancient white guys? Tár’s response is obvious. The artists’ works override their nationality, colour and gender. Likewise, she challenges Max to look at the composer of his own choice, Icelandic, female composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. What is the resemblance that Max has to identify with her?
Brilliant question. To which Max responds by picking up his stuff and walks out, with a verbal swipe of expletive for his teacher. Tár replies: “And you’re a robot. The architect of your soul appears to be social media.”
Who wins this debate? Field leaves it to his viewers to decide. As with the other issues laid out in the film as well as the ending, there are more questions than answers. Yes, Blanchett’s performance is top-notch, but I come out having a higher appreciation of Field’s writing.
~ ~ ~ Ripples