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Criticism: ‘Tár’

Tar
Via IMDb
Tar

Rating: 10/10

“Tár” might be the great modern character study, diving into the mind of a woman who couldn’t be challenged by anyone but herself. Writer-director Todd Field paints a hyper-specific and insular portrait of Lydia Tár, a conductor at the peak of the classical music world preparing for her performance of Mahler’s legendary Symphony No. 5. Her world is intensely hierarchical, and someone of Tár’s caliber is revered and untouchable. Through her lens, “Tár” inspects the modern genius, the power that comes with it and the systems that protect it. 

A well-crafted and well-acted film was inevitable. Writer-director Todd Field had already made a name for himself 20 years ago with his first film, “In the Bedroom” (2001), which was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture. His sophomore film, “Little Children” (2006), garnered three Oscar nominations, but he’s been off the radar since. Fortunately, “Tár” was a masterful piece after much anticipation. 

Tár is portrayed by the great Cate Blanchett, who is similarly at the height of her own powers. It’s a rehearsal movie, depicting the creative process in aggressive detail. The film doesn’t show all of the work that went into the performance, but the final product exhibits it. Blanchett dedicated herself to learning German, took piano lessons and learned proper skills to conduct as a professional would. Blanchett learned to speak German and to play piano. She learned to conduct, because all of the classical music in the film is performed live. She had to spend over a year learning the form, studying the music, and understanding the character. 

The work paid off. The performance is stunning. Blanchett has had a repertoire of playing many powerful women, ranging from the seductive older love interest in “Carol” (2015), to the menacing goddess in “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). What’s most impressive about her performance in “Tár,” however, isn’t just the powerful demeanor she fronts when interacting with people she deems inferior; it’s the paranoia, fear or loneliness in her eyes when she’s alone. I see it as one of the defining performances of our time. 

“Tár” is deliberately paced and almost tediously specific. This is a character study before anything else, and it isn’t interested in guiding its audience through the plot. Long sequences are dedicated to establishing characters and relationships. In one early scene, Tár is conducting a masterclass for young conductors at Julliard. Through this continuous eleven-minute shot, we witness an incredible display of razor-sharp dialogue and acting. After barraging a young student with questions about artistry and intent, we learn that she never backs down from protecting the sanctity of true artistry, and that she can be terrifying in that defense. 

All the performances feel incredibly authentic, particularly from actress Nina Hoss, who plays as Sharon, the wife and lover of Tár. Our view of Sharon is from the perspective of Tár, but she’s a fascinating character. She may be complicit in something sinister, benefitting from such a figure. Indeed, Sharon wields an implied power. Hoss’ performance is very interior, and our best insights into her feelings come from her interrogative glances or the occasional moments where she’ll question her wife. On my second watch of the film, I found this element of the story to be one of the most riveting.

After settling into the pacing of the movie, an abundance of nuances are to be discovered. Through an unapologetic and pretentious 158-minute palette, it manages to explore layers of her psyche and hint at the structures around her. Lydia Tár is a fictional creation, but it’s no surprise that unaware audiences have consistently looked up afterward what happened to her in real life. It’s enigmatic, and may leave you with more questions than answers, but few films manage to raise such compelling questions. 

The score for the film was composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who previously won an Oscar for her work on “Joker” (2019). The nondiegetic score is rarely heard, but lends itself to the mind of an artist, at times contemplative or chaotic. Instead, this movie belongs to Gustav Mahler. His music is epic and challenging. He was famously quoted as saying that “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” During his time, some critics dismissed him as bombastic or over-indulgent. He was constantly fearful of his own death or the weakness of his legacy. Over a century after his death, his music is now seen as some of the most essential in the repertoire.

“Tár” is certainly a challenging or perhaps an indulgent watch, but I think it’s undeniable. Tár’s fight for her own legacy is a beautiful tribute to Mahler’s, and “Tár’s” depiction of power is a haunting tribute to the classical music world. For audiences ready for a challenge, I’ve not seen a better film in years.

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