Film review: Tár / Director: Todd Field / Released: 2022
A difficult film to write about for many reasons. And one that has raised controversy, especially among classical music aficionados like me.
On the one hand, the director’s vision is clear. You can tell the level of technical skill and detail involved. He deserves credit for creating a claustrophobic, dense atmosphere: there is plenty of tension in both internal and external settings (the vast, open interiors of the Philharmonie or the stark shots of Tár jogging in the park). There is also a lot of intellectual bravado involved, which feels both clever and witty. To be fair, the first 15 minutes or so of the film are expertly crafted, with a tense interview scene that gives us a glimpse of Lydia Tár’s personality.
On the other hand, as an active member of several online classical music forums, I can understand why many classical music fans find the film irritating. There were times I felt artistic licence was frequently taken to extremes. Some notable examples: there are many overly animated conductors out there. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, I’m one of the few who believe that a conductor’s theatricality can enhance the impact of a live performance). However, Tár’s gestures and facial expressions are simply on another level. Blanchett has repeatedly demonstrated her talent as an actress (watch her performance in Carol for an example of great contemporary acting), and her performance here is compelling (and she will probably win the Oscar for that). So make no mistake, I am not referring to Blanchet’s electrifying acting but rather to the exaggerated physical outbursts of Tár, the conductor, which, while seemingly unrealistic on the one hand, match the director’s overall aesthetic conception (more of this later). Either this is the case, or it is simply meant to portray Tár’s gradual mental decline.
Then, we learn that Tár is the director of the Berlin Philharmonic – for those who don’t know it, it is arguably the most prestigious orchestra in the world, not just for the quality of the music-making but also because of its historical legacy (some of the most famous conductors were at its helm: Furtwangler, Karajan, Abbado, then Rattle). So, when the orchestra has to choose a new cellist, Tár easily avoids the formal procedures and appoints the former as a soloist for the Elgar Cello Concerto, cunningly bypassing the orchestra vote. I just find it hard to believe that this could happen in real life, especially without a further reaction from orchestra members or management. I also find it hard to fathom that a conductor would instruct her assistant to carry Abbado’s photograph around with her and take it out in public to visually compare their style and posture (!) Or why Mahler’s 5th is referred to as “the big one” among the composer’s output!
Then there’s Tár’s personality, which appears to be on the extremes: we learn she’ll perform the Adagietto in 7 minutes, but when she starts the second movement, the pauses are painfully long. Again, could this possibly be a sign of her unconventional personality? One could certainly argue that. Or when she tells off a student for performing Guðnadóttir’s music and asks him why he didn’t choose the Kyrie from Bach’s B Minor Mass; possibly not the most appropriate work for – a college conducting workshop – you wouldn’t really expect this to be a reasonable request from a world-class conductor. But then again, with Tár, logic often goes out the window.
Anyway, as I previously stated, all of this can be considered artistic licence, but it is exaggerated. If these exaggerations are not script inconsistencies but rather reflect Tar’s emotional extremes, then I rest my case.
After all, most people won’t notice the above unless they are really into classical music. Not to mention the film is fiction, so let’s pretend we’re okay with the background context – that of conducting and the world of classical music.
But even so, leaving context aside, the film has two main weaknesses for me.
First, there’s the elliptical plot. Many backstories are missing, and while I appreciate the film’s minimalist aesthetic, some of the more over-the-top scenes and acting (e.g., the school incident, the actual day of Mahler’s 5th performance) are difficult to justify. What happened between Tar and the new conductor? Why is her partner so quiet and rarely speaks? Why is there so little character development for anyone other than Tar? In this respect, I agree (once more) with Richard Brody’s review for the New Yorker when he writes that “It’s also a useful illustration of the fact that there is no such thing as “the story,” no pre-existing set of events that inherently define a character’s life, rise, or fall.”
It often seems that the emphasis is on the impact of the aesthetic rather than character development. The opening credits are a case in point, despite the fact that it is trivial: while the tiny fonts and geometrically precise alignment fit the film’s atmosphere, do they serve their purpose if no one can read them?
Finally, there is no denying that cliches abound. Marin Alsop, a real-life conductor who appears in the film, said she was offended, and one cannot blame her. “That feels anti-woman…To assume that women will either behave identically to men or become hysterical, crazy, insane is to perpetuate something we’ve already seen on film so many times before.” Well, let’s see. We have a female conductor who happens to be a lesbian and who happens to be emotionally unstable. It doesn’t really paint the best picture for female conductors, lesbians, or, to be honest, women in general.
It’s stereotyping of that sort that ruins what could have been a great film. Maybe it would have been if the director had kept the intellectual tone established in the first fifteen minutes. And did I mention the finale is a work of art in and of itself? Indeed, the very ending is spectacular in its conception and cinematic intensity – it is the filmmaking of a true auteur. And make no mistake, I believe Todd Field is getting there.
However, despite a strong start and finale, the main section progressively devolves into what I’d call intellectualised soap opera (too much exaggerated drama, little substance) about a deeply troubled person who also happens to be a conductor, a woman, and a lesbian. All this takes place in a cold, grey-coloured Germany. If this is not a parade of stereotypes, I don’t know what is.
But to end on a positive note, we have a flawed film that revolves around a single character, and although there is a lack of connecting events or history to support the latter (Tár seems to have come from another planet), Cate Blanchett’s captivating presence gives it some substance.
Featured Image: https://www.focusfeatures.com/tar/gallery/