In an accompaniment to the film’s initial trailer, director Todd Field stated that the script was exclusively written for Cate Blanchett, and as Tár finally lands in British cinemas this January, it’s easy to see why. The titular Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is an orchestral tour-du-force on both a professional and personal level, as the most imminent classical conductor of the modern age steadily spirals into disgrace following the suicide of her ex-student and allegations of misconduct.
The audience is introduced to a composed and commanding Tár as she instructs a vocal soloist over the top of Field’s boldly placed front-end credits, which highlight all of the behind-the-scenes professionals without whose work the film would not exist in a space where moviegoers are forced to acknowledge them. Tár’s gravitas is evident before we even see her — though quickly juxtaposed with a view of her through a phone camera, slumped and sleeping on a red-eye private jet as the unknown voyeur discusses her over text. We are then introduced to Tár as she wants us to know her, through a live theatre interview with real-life journalist Adam Gopnik. Her upcoming book, ironically entitled ‘Tár on Tár’ is discussed, along with her upcoming performance on Mahler’s Fifth with the fictional Berlin Orchestra as the crowning achievement of her career, all the while her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) mouths along to Tár’s introductory biography sidestage.
Tár is a masterpiece in showing rather than telling. The film is initially languid, and perhaps just a little too long, but every minute of the run-time is dedicated to allowing the viewer to discover the character and mental state of Tár and her contemporaries, despite actually telling us little more about them than would fill a wikipedia entry. She leads a class at Juilliard, where clashes over moral ideology in classical music with a student spark a walk-out, meets with the favour-currying manager of her women-only fellowship (Mark Strong), and returns home to loving wife Sarah (Nina Hoss), the concertmaster of her orchestra, all in-between distressed park runs and increasingly intrusive noises. The sound design in Tár is arguably some of the best seen in film in recent years, thanks to the work of specialists like supervising sound editor Stephen Griffiths. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s stunning score is supported by silences as loud as bombs, and repetitive audio cues that almost physically crawl under the skin. Anyone sensitive to sound like myself will find themselves squirming in their seat, empathizing uncomfortably with Tár as the outside world intrudes on her life and disrupts her work in ironic audio-narrative harmony.
It is difficult, however, to empathize with the root cause. Tár’s polarising nature within the media and viewers alike is largely down to the way it responds to cancel culture. Rocked by the news that fellowship recipient Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) has killed herself, Tár is concerned only for herself as she attempts to destroy the paper trail linking her professional and personal interventions to Krista’s demise, and acquire herself some unopposed “fresh meat” in the form of newbie violinist Olga (Sophie Kauer). Post ‘Me Too’ movement, it is easy to celebrate Tár’s comeuppance as years of sexual misdeeds and lacking professional integrity rock the conductor’s carefully constructed world. Reviews have read Tár as both a pushback against cancel culture and contemporary politics, while yet others feel the film insists that all parties must be held culpable. The reality seems to fall somewhere in the middle.
Tár is, ultimately, an expertly crafted piece of character study and world-building, leaving us with an appropriately complicated impression of a complex character. Whether Tár’s wrongdoings were knowingly, maliciously committed or merely a matter of unwise, selfish conduct is left largely oblique, though the wrongness of them regardless is more than keenly felt. The film serves as a deconstruction not only of the often false identity of its titular character, but also the haughty status and hierarchy of the world of classical music. By the time of Tár’s final performance, of a video game soundtrack in the Philippines that sees her bow to a crowd of cosplay-adorned Monster Hunter fans, we understand that this is, perhaps, musically beneath her. It is, however, the form of orchestra that most ordinary people will most frequently come into contact with. Film music and soundtracks are inherently accessible.
Todd Field has opened up the high art world of professional musicians to us, proving its perceived status and inner workings unnecessary. The end credits song, which accompanies the actors’ names as they scroll down the screen, is Barbarian by Besomorph & Jurgaz — a deliberately blatant piece of EDM. And it’s powerful. Just as powerful as anything Tár might write.
Tár is out in cinemas now
by Isobel Frost
Isobel (she/her) is a freelance writer and aspiring entertainment journalist from Yorkshire. She is a steadfast enjoyer of all things visual media and is guaranteed to cry at most of it. Her favourite films include Lilo & Stitch and The Lost Boys, which, if nothing else, proves she contains multitudes. You can find her on Twitter and Substack.
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