Tár — An Enigmatic Character Study

Image retrieved from TMDb

“Don’t be so eager to be offended,” Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár tells a pangender BIPOC Juilliard student when they say they’re not interested in listening to or studying Bach, a racist white man. “The narcissism of small differences leads to conformity.” It’s an early scene in the 158-minute Tár, but it weighs heavily on the rest of the film, and sets the tone for who Lydia is as a character. As its slowly-paced story unfolds, we’re left with this impression of her, along with her long list of accomplishments. That list would be the normal length of one of my reviews, so I’ll leave it at, she’s basically the most accomplished and greatest living musical conductor in the world, and the film explores the implications of a person of such status having this kind of mindset.

I’ll get this out of the way now: Blanchett is simply astonishing as Lydia Tár — she completely transforms and gets lost in the role. But it’s not the kind of “gets lost” that we’ve seen from Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis, with massive physical transformations or stories of method acting. Rather, Blanchett is subtle with her performance; every movement and line of dialogue is Lydia. There’s no one scene where you can say, “There’s her Oscars clip.” It’s just scene after scene, one compounding on the next, in which we gradually get into the mind of this character.

But even still, there’s a wall — we don’t know everything about Lydia. Writer/director, Todd Field, who hasn’t made a movie since 2006’s Little Children, places you in a moment in Lydia’s life, with no backstory or flashbacks, when the pot is just about ready to boil over. She’s the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is giving an interview in The New Yorker, is preparing for a live recording of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, and about halfway through the film, is hit with allegations of grooming a former pupil of hers. 

In his mostly matter-of-fact way, Field presents Lydia, asking you to make up your own mind about her. She’s obviously incredibly talented and is at the top of her field for good reason. But grooming allegations are what they are. There are merits to Lydia’s utter contempt for who she calls the “millennial robot’s” take on Bach. Being unwilling to engage with what made someone significant in the first place can lead to a lack of understanding of the history of the art form you exist in now. But handwaving any and all wrongs that a significant historical figure may have done can lead to a perpetuation of similar wrongs, and that’s an understanding to which Lydia is incapable of bringing herself. 

Thankfully, Field doesn’t hit you over the head or get too cheesy with his take on #MeToo. His restrained dive into Lydia’s character effectively holds a mirror up to the viewer, allowing them to make their own judgement. I know where I stand, and I think I know where Field stands, but if someone with the opposite worldview told me they see it differently, I don’t think I could say they’re wrong. It’s an impressive tightrope to walk.

While each and every scene of a small number of characters talking does add something to the narrative and our understanding of Lydia, who appears in nearly every frame of the film, it can drag just a bit. If you’re into the film’s tone and its occasional moments of dry, dark humor, then the slow pace will likely work for you. But if you’re like me, and the two women behind you are previewing the upcoming Sarah Polley movie and talking the whole time, you might be a bit on edge. While I’m sure the women talking had some effect on my viewing experience, I did find Tár to be ever too slow for my tastes nonetheless. I’m just not sure every scene added something to the characterization or the film’s atmosphere.

Quibbles with the pacing aside, Tár is still undeniably singular. From the main performance, to the depth in which orchestral music is presented and discussed, to the subtlety in which the subject matter is explored, this is one to ruminate on, discuss, rewatch, and then ruminate some more.


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