Field’s “TÁR” begins with a ten-minute interview with our titular character in which almost every other line of her dialogue is an obscure classical music reference. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is the worst kind of pretentious, because she has the résumé and acumen to warrant it. She’s an influential conductor, and she wants you to know it. So, too, does the camera, which constantly plays with where she is in space relative to other characters. Her distance from others is the film’s loudest element, and it reaches a crescendo especially when she stands over others. Regardless of where she’s at, however, Blanchett’s Tár never psychologically leaves the conductor’s podium, and she fights for that position of power with a cold ferocity.
Should you challenge her place, she’s always more than happy to oblige in reminding you of yours. In one scene, a pangender student of color (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), fearfully tapping their foot, tells Tár that they don’t resonate with Bach because of his whiteness and treatment of women. Tár scoffs at this and proceeds to eviscerate them in front of the class with a combination of passive aggression, holding their knee down to stop the foot-tapping and using intimidation to teach him that one’s identity has no bearing on the quality of their art. She’s taking her music the way the New Critics took their books: She asserts that her way of reading the music as text isolated from its author is the only way of reading it. By contrast, the film argues that it’s not only one’s identity by which their work should be understood, but one’s person and the actions and beliefs shaped by that identity.
This is why “TÁR” hardly ever shows its titular character actually conducting until its second act, where the abrupt cut to her beckoning a booming start from her orchestra almost makes you jump out of your seat. While you question where all the “Amadeus”-style symphonic explosions are hiding, the film is letting you get to know this artist to the point where she becomes inseparable from the work she does. It builds itself from a collection of private moments. We see her wake up to her alarm, set to a classical radio station, where she begins her day criticizing whoever’s conducting the arrangement she’s hearing. We see her by herself in her various apartments, mimicking sounds that catch her ear. Most strikingly, we see the moments where she gets close to others and touches them tenderly, a stark contrast to the distance the film plays with so much.
She holds her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), in close, dancing to Count Basie’s rendition of “Lil’ Darlin;” she blows raspberries at her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) while being driven to her next rehearsal. She is capable of vulnerability in private, but almost never without something promised back in return: She stays at the podium. She steals her partner’s pills and dangles the prospect of a promotion in Francesca’s face. She is selective about those she keeps closer than arm’s length, but even then, the baton remains in hand. The transactional nature of these relationships becomes the center of the film’s conflict as we learn that Tár has illicit affairs with young female members of her band and scholarship program. Distance, both figurative and literal, is the means by which she maintains control over those she loves, but, as the film’s plot continues, she begins losing grip of that control.
To make things worse, there’s her adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic), “the one relationship in your life,” Sharon tells Tár, “that isn’t transactional.” There aren’t many scenes we get of Tár with her daughter, but the film finds its emotional stakes in them. Granted, we want Tár to get caught and pay for her actions, but her genuine love for her daughter creates a desire to see Tár change. The problem is that even within that love, when the baton is lowered for a moment, she continues gasping for air from the infinite ocean of her past practices. Petra is to stay out of her study, and we get a fantastic scene where Tár shamelessly threatens Petra’s school bully. “God watches us all, Johanna,” she warns her, “and if you tell a grown-up, they won’t believe you, because I am a grown-up.” Naturally, this display of her usual tactics of intimidation and control towards the orchestra is punctuated by her standing tall over Johanna out of frame of the camera. True, she defends Petra, but it seems even her most naked emotions remain sullied by her callous need to control.
“TÁR” is a slow burn, and perhaps its second act is held out for longer than it ought to. Its length is ultimately forgiven by the protagonist’s untimely fall from grace, in which her actions against others — from those big, problematic relationships with students to the subtle ways in which she takes advantage of her loved ones — come crashing down on her. Her fall is both pitiable and predictable; regardless of her skill, how could a story about someone like this not end this way? How could someone who treats people like members of her orchestra be allowed to get away with all of that? The art and artist become one and the same. Though the film mimics the previously mentioned “Amadeus” in length, playing “too many notes,” witnessing that fall is what brings everything together. “TÁR” goes out with a comic whimper rather than a bang, but the genius lies in that it is a whimper of her own conducting: a flatulent trumpet of irony rather than a resounding swell on its final chord.
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