As part of our coverage of the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Todd Field’s latest psychological drama, Tár. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
The art of conducting is far from subtle work. I first fell in love with conducting’s emotional influence in high school. Miss Liddy, my choir teacher, had a way with her hands and made each stroke of her baton feel like there was an electrical current between its tip and my brain. It was impossible not to watch her sharp yet spasmodic movements, cueing us when we needed cueing and building a mutual language between us with each directional gesture. There was a passion there I’d never quite experienced before in any other musical setting. It traveled tectonically to my feet like a river, drowning my toes in a puddle of sound and movement come alive.
Todd Field’s new psychological drama epic Tár very quickly transported me back into that passionate world but coupled it with ripe complications for its lead character and an expansion on the narrative that passion can prevail even when everything else comes crashing down on you. It’s not exactly the most unique of stories, but Cate Blanchett’s performance as the eccentric, strong, and deeply talented Lydia Tár, coupled with the way Field has crafted her character both on the page and behind the lens, lends itself to a deeply unique version of a universal inner struggle. Blanchett isn’t merely acting, though; She completely and fully becomes Tár — and that alone makes this film a shining star in a pitch black night sky.
Tár tells the story of Blanchett’s Tar, a prolific conductor and composer who is known as one of the world’s greatest living artists in the medium of classical music. When we meet her in the film, she’s at the top of her game, living a charmed life in Berlin with a musically-gifted wife who plays in her orchestra and their daughter. But when a series of unsavory choices, both past, and present, begin to unravel the very fabric of her world, she must decipher how to stay true to herself.
Right off the bat, we are presented with an incredibly strong female lead. While we certainly have more than several great ones we can point to over the years, seeing powerful yet complicated women on film and having their stories truly fleshed out never gets old. They deserve just as much attention as our favorite brooding male leads — a solid Bruce Wayne comes to mind, but there are so many men we can point to throughout film history that we don’t even need to get into it — and while they haven’t been entirely neglected, their stories aren’t always as filled with emotional life or depth as Tár’s tale.
In fact, part of why Tár succeeds in this way simply hinges on the fact that the character, in all her exceptional skill and knowledge, is far from perfect. Flaw after flaw comes rushing from her in waves as the audience starts to realize she isn’t the prolific genius she proposes to be on the outside all the time. The film even tackles identity politics in a really raw and realistic way — so much so that some strange clapping during my press screening surrounding Tár’s problematic comments ended up being a bit of a mirror on the moment. But it doesn’t shy away from how that kind of negativity can deeply affect both people involved, starting with the tense scene that shows Tár dismissing a student’s progressive ideologies during a conducting masterclass.
Naturally, the incident has a profound effect on the student, but it also ripples out into Tár’s life and seeps into what becomes her eventual downfall. Further, we discover that Tár had potentially abused her position as mentor and teacher with aspiring female conductors whom she worked with, including a mysterious woman named Krista, whom we never meet but consumes Tár’s thoughts and dreams and even her doubts and fears. The complication of events and the inevitable downward spiral is engrossing to watch because it hinges on the emotional life Blanchett brings to the composer and her myriad of issues and successes.
That rich emotional world within Tár comes to a breathtaking head when, following her fall from grace, Tár returns to her childhood home and watches an old conducting tape she clearly enjoyed when she was a child. After finishing his piece, the conductor turns to the audience and gives a speech about what music truly means to us. It makes us feel things, and what we feel when we hear a piece of music that affects us is worth its weight in gold, whether that feeling is positive or negative. And as Tár tears up watching this speech, it becomes clear to the audience that she simply cannot live without the feelings given to her by a beautiful piece of music. It’s so relatable I couldn’t help but be brought to tears. No matter what lights your fire in this world, if you love it enough, you simply cannot be separated from it.
That fire burns bright in the film’s final scene, which I would be remiss to spoil for you. However, I can say that it certainly hammers home the idea that after our mistakes have been made, we need to find a way to keep on living. For Tár, nothing could keep her from the music, and her drive to stay close to the one thing she truly loves is admirable and all too common in a world that clings to cancel culture. It doesn’t make her transgressions any better, nor does it absolve her from them, but it does force both her and the audience to find a way to move on — something we all eventually must do after we make mistakes, whether or not the world wants to let us try again.
I have to say it: If you watch the trailer for Tár, you might be expecting a slightly different film. I was deeply engrossed in the sneak peek, which gave off the impression of an altogether more psychedelic visual experience. Yes, psychedelic. There were several abstract images and incredibly surreal moments that made the movie out to be a bit trippier than the serious and somewhat straightforward story that the film actually tells. But for once, I wasn’t disappointed by the bait and switch, which usually deeply bothers me when I finally get around to watching a film whose trailer I loved.
Tár is still full of compelling chaos, and whether or not that chaos is in the character’s head or in real life is ultimately not important. What is important is that the film, and by extension the character, shows you its version of chaos and forces you into riding alongside her as a passenger in her demise, which becomes a front-row seat to a flawed kind of freeing rebirth. This is Cate Blanchett’s best performance since Carol, and it might be her best performance thus far — and we should be so lucky to watch her drown herself in the work, like she so feverishly does in Tár, for the rest of her career.
Related Topics: Venice Film Festival