WHAT WEand#039;RE WATCHING: TÁR: A feast for the film fundis

WHAT WEand#039;RE WATCHING: TÁR: A feast for the film fundis

In a nutshell

Cate Blanchett plays an internationally renowned composer at the peak of her career, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s preparing a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5 that she hopes will be her magnum opus, and simultaneously launching a book. At this pivotal moment in her life, she is besieged by allegations about her relationship with an ex-pupil, and she begins to unravel at the seams.

This is the first film from writer-producer-director Todd Field in 16 years, and vastly different from his previous two. First and foremost, it’s an unsettling and increasingly mysterious character study that fully commits to and benefits from Cate Blanchett’s unique inscrutable presence, but as well as that, it’s a complex examination of power and gender that dares to muddy the waters in a dangerous whirlpool of identity politics without taking a clear standpoint.

Where to watch it

TÁR is available in cinemas.

What’s the vibe?

The filmography of Alejandro González Iñárritu is the most obvious comparison to be made – particularly Birdman, Whiplash, and Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, all of which are character-driven films about aspiring artists and which delve extensively into their mental health. It has a similar sense of doom and fall from grace to that of Birdman; the specific politics of an orchestral drama and interaction of the score and the music itself as in Whiplash; and the philosophical angst about career success grappled with in Bardo.

A vital part of the way we interpret TÁR is contingent on the sound mix and how we experience noise through our protagonist. In this way it is similar to Sound Of Metal, and almost as ground-breaking. In terms of the unsettling and unclear cerebral style of the film it has an affinity with Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan, which stars Natalie Portman as a New York City Ballet ballerina whose obsession with perfection consumes her to the extent that she begins to lose her grip of reality and suffer paranoid hallucinations. Tár’s motivations and psychological journey take her down a similar rabbit hole.

Sophie Kauer stars as Olga Metkina and Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s ‘Tár’. Image: Courtesy of Focus Features

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s ‘Tár’. Image: Courtesy of Focus Features

Cate Blanchett in ‘Tár’. Image: Courtesy of Focus Features

Nina Hoss stars as Sharin Goodnow and Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s ‘Tár’. Image: Courtesy of Focus Features

A closer look

Writer-director Todd Field says that his script was written entirely around Blanchett.

“Had she said no, the film would have never seen the light of day. After all, she is a master supreme. The privilege of collaborating with an artist of this calibre is something impossible to adequately describe. In every possible way, this is Cate’s film.”

The importance of Blanchett’s eccentricities to the complex role of Lydia Tár is immediately evident to viewers. This is a person whose bombardment with respect and adoration has shaped a narcissistic charisma and an ever-present, self-important stress of competing with her own previous successes. It may be uncharitable to point out how these pressurising circumstances could also apply to Blanchett herself, but the character certainly feels all the more real because of it.

She speaks in a haughty voice and makes pretentious reference to terms from other cultures in such a way that implies the lamentable ignorance of anyone who is not so enlightened as to be familiar with them. She’s intimidating. She always has a snarky response. She doesn’t read reviews, cultivating the notion that she is above the consequences of popular opinion, and believes her own rhetoric about the poignancy of intent behind music.

The film opens with an on-stage interview between Tár and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, played by himself. Gopnik reads out her extensive bio in full, a form of exposition fully impressing upon us her overwhelming success. Gopnik’s questions are along the lines of “Could you tell us about being the most talented and enlightened person in history?” She responds to such overbearing adoration with the cool, feigned humility of a performer steeped in defensive media training. She gives the impression that she is performing more during the interview than she does as a conductor.

She’s always performing, and we are highly aware of it; but it’s not clear whether it’s Tár’s or Blanchett’s acting we’re noticing, and that is persistently intriguing.

Tár is brilliantly unfamiliar as a female character, and though her gender is constantly a talking point, she seems remarkably uninterested in gender constructs and would rather remove gender from our perception altogether.

It’s difficult to decide whether her standpoint is immediately feminist one or not. The way that she approaches identity politics seems conservative at first, when she clashes with a Generation Z student of hers who identifies as BIPOC pangender and refuses to acknowledge or play Bach on the basis of accusations of his misogyny.

Tár responds to the question of whether music written by a bunch of straight, white German guys exalts us, with a startling, unemotional, politically incorrect, “If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his birth, gender and ethnicity then so can yours”.

But as the film progresses, these refreshingly atypical standpoints take on a very different significance when she is accused of predatory behaviour and having been an abuser of previous students. There have been whispers that her character may have been inspired by a real woman – Marin Alsop, director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who has herself complained that the “superficial aspects of Tár seemed to align with my own personal life”, though there have been no accusations of abuse in her career. Alsop has been vocal about her disagreement with the gender politics imbued in the portrayal of Tár.

“To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking.”

It’s a fair point, and yet some would argue that this is exactly the reductive approach to gender that Tár criticises so aptly in the film. It’s unusual to see a female character take on this typically male niche of an ethically grey area and that adds to the film’s novelty without clearly reflecting on the real stories of manipulation emerging from #MeToo.

Once the smear campaign begins against Tár, the magical realism becomes far more prevalent. As a virtuoso pianist, she is highly attuned to sounds in her life, toying with them constantly, and our awareness of sounds is heightened through her perspective. Her reactivity to small noises and interruptions becomes a stressful source of adrenalin that facilitates most of the thrill of the movie.

The most tense and memorable moments involve her simply searching for the source of a sound, and there are no clear answers as to whether these sounds really carried any import or even whether they truly existed. Her interpretation of sounds begins to enmesh with that of her reality as a whole, and questions such as whether her assistant is stalking her or whether the screams she hears on her runs are real or not are left unanswered.

TÁR takes a while to build any momentum and it’s too long for such an intensely cerebral film, but the sleek cinematography and multifaceted, agenda-free commentary on identity politics make it more than worth your time. Those who take an interest in classical music will delight at the research and thought that has gone into Tár’s preferences, which don’t just serve to prove her experience but also to indicate elements of her character, such as her disdain for certain female composers.

A lot goes over most viewers’ heads, but it’s balanced enough to also invite non-music nerds into the more philosophical conversations about art as a whole, and the matters that truly define the plot of the film are accessible and relevant to everybody. DM/ ML

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‘Tár’ film poster. Image: Focus Features

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Author: Christeen Block

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