Tár, written and directed by Todd Field.
Todd Field was once an actor, and notably appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut as a jazz pianist. One cannot help thinking that a lot of Stanley rubbed off on Field, in particular his ability to make highly watchable yet multi-layered films which not only tell an accessible story but also address a range of important themes at a deeper level. Think of Kubrick’s The Shining, a horror story ostensibly about a frustrated writer threatening to wreak violence on his family in a deserted hotel, but also a work which examines the genocide of Native Americans and the triumphant march of an impersonal, mechanized imperialism over the natural rhythms of life.
Tár is a mesmerizing and complex tale of a jet-setting star orchestral conductor, Lydia Tár, and her past transgressions, her failings and her fall from grace. She is magnificently played by Cate Blanchett who inhabits every frame with a mixture of seductive charm, power and antagonism. We are firmly in the present day. Digital media, and its often deleterious effects, is everywhere. There is an early scene which Field deliberately films in a single take, a way of ensuring that we, the audience, know exactly what took place. In it Lydia holds a conducting master class at the Julliard School and upbraids an earnest student for his condemnation of Bach as a misogynist. After all, he points out, Bach fathered twenty children and was a white male. But the same scene, heavily and mischievously edited, later goes viral and contributes to Tár’s downfall. Fake news, anybody? At the same time Tár knows that her Wikipedia entry has been hijacked, and she remains frustrated by Deutsche Grammophon’s reluctance to issue her new recording on vinyl. The mind-boggling final scene is set in the realm of a video game.
The recording that is to be made is of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a decisive break in the tortured composer’s oeuvre and the first work he completed after falling in love with his wife. Many people’s first encounter with Mahler’s Fifth was, of course, in a film – Visconti’s Death in Venice, a fact dismissively referred to by Tár in rehearsal and a piece of irony that we as cinemagoers should also consider. One of the great pleasures of this film is to witness in close-up the hierarchical structure of an orchestra, and the interpersonal dynamics at work. When the lead cellist is snubbed for a solo role the shock within the ensemble is palpable.
Just like Mahler, Tár is struggling with her own efforts at composing, and like Mahler, she is constantly bothered by extraneous noise. Even in the countryside Mahler got no rest from cowbells and birdsong. In Tár’s case some of the noises are worryingly inside her head.
Lydia Tár, we learn at the outset, has founded a mentoring scheme for female conductors but the suspicion grows that this is also her way of forging inappropriate relationships with aspiring young women. One previous amour has been driven to suicide. Lydia then gets the hots for a pretty young Russian. Mention is made of the real cases of James Levine and Charles Dutoit whose careers ended after such accusations. So we are firmly in Me-Too territory, but Field resists treating the subject simplistically. Lydia’s lover Sharon accuses her of having only one non-transactional relationship, that with their adopted daughter Petra. Perhaps the idea that Field wants to posit is that, in the arts world especially, many relationships are transactional, even when genuine. In the era of identity politics, what should we be concerned with the most, the quality of art, or the personal life of the artist? Back to Bach.
Over two and a half hours a less-than-sympathetic but completely three-dimensional protagonist holds out attention unwaveringly. Todd Field has made only three feature length films – the last one was sixteen years ago – and each has been distinctive, thoughtful and accomplished. Tár is one of the most deeply considered and intriguing cinema offerings of recent times. A nailed-on Oscar for Blanchett, in my opinion, but hopefully Field’s writing and directing will be properly rewarded as well.
© Graham Buchan 2022.