Friday Film: Tar

Director : Todd Field

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, Nina Hoss

By Rehna

(Venice film festival premiere)

Tar stars Cate Blanchett. The film was executive produced by Cate Blanchett. It most likely was greenlit because of Cate Blanchett’s involvement. It will gain audiences because of Cate Blanchett. So, it’s only fitting that Cate Blanchett totally and utterly dominates this story of Lydia Tár, protege of Leonard Bernstein and first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

She commands the screen in every scene she’s in and since that’spretty much the entire film, this is a genuine tour de force performance. Often it feels as if Blanchett isn’t so much playing a role as embodying a barely contained ferocity of talent and straight arrowed ambition. She will almost certainly be an imposing presence on the awards circuit for the best leading actress prizes. She’s been there before, of course, twice ending up a winner. Once as best supporting actress in TheAviator when she was mired in the mannered stiffness and vocal acrobatics of playing Katherine Hepburn and later her lead actress win for Blue Jasmine where she was submerged in the skittish tics and instability of a discarded trophy wife.

Tar is a different role. At times it’s hard not to see it as a seamless melding of Blanchett’s own no nonsense public persona and Lydia’s assertive stride through life. This seeming blurring of the real and dramatised is what gives the film the feel and look of a biopic. It isn’t. Lydia Tar is not a real person. That we believe she is comes from Blanchett’s compelling performance and director Todd Field’s smartly sly narrative.

It feels real from the opening scenes. Lydia Tar, resting on a plane with an eye mask on, viewed through a lens, perhaps of a wandering smartphone gathering information. Tar, the celebrated not celebrity (too lowbrow) conductor being interviewed by a (real) contributor to the New Yorker. The latter scene, in particular, gives the film the feel of a documentary, especially when Tar’s numerous accomplishments are listed by the interviewer. It’s clearly exposition intended to help the viewer understand why they’re watching a film about someone they’ve never heard of but the blurring of fiction parading as reality is slightly unnerving – and also chillingly convincing.

The film plays with its audience a lot in this way. We are blasted constantly by the internet/smartphone trappings of modern life; tweets, Instagram posts, Google updates. Lydia Tar is real. She must be. She’s on all our screens, big and small. Maybe we’re just not cultured and elite enough to know of her.

Tar is a challenging, intelligent film, taking a spiky look at celebrity, cancel culture, the current climate of cognitive dissonance, bullying, power imbalance and whether you can separate talent from transgression.

Ultimately though, Tar is a solidly satisfying character study of a major talent chased and finally undone by her sexually predatory, professionally vindictive, personally cruel past. 

Blanchett glides effortlessly through the entitled narcissism of Lydia Tar, her duplicity with colleagues she regards as inferior, her callous disregard for the long suffering wife she regularly cheats on with young music protégés, her sharp tongued dismissal of weak minded students unable to hold an argument, without making the stylishly dressed maestro an out and out villain. Blanchett’s Tar is complex, multi-layered, unfathomable, unreachable but always magnetic. Despite strong support from a cast which includes the likes of Nina Hoss and Mark Strong, the film feels like a one woman show, so forceful is Blanchett in the titular role.

Unless another leading actress performance rises between now and early 2023, the Oscar is hers to lose.

That said, Tar is a speciality film, not a Friday night box office behemoth. It’s long (2 hours 38 minutes), as demanding on the viewer as Tar is on her musicians, a slow unravelling of the actual story and aimed at the erudite, elite movie crowd that inhabits cinemas where a popcorn, nachos and coke combo is definitely not on the menu. But like a home cooked meal, it’s ultimately more satisfying than you think it will be when you first start cooking. It’s the music biopic for the intellectual head what Elvis is for the emotive heart.