Cate Blanchett cements her next Oscar nomination (and quite possible a win) with “Tár”, the latest film from writer-director Todd Field. It’s Field’s first time behind the camera since 2006’s “Little Children”, and he has once again put together a movie that’s getting a lot of awards season buzz. His story follows a fictional conductor and composer named Lydia Tár who’s at the height of her career. But when accusations of misconduct arise, she watches as her life of success and renown begins to unravel.
Blanchett plays Lydia Tár with a fierce confidence that bleeds over into the character. It can be quiet and subtle, or it can be unbridled and consuming. It’s that very confidence that makes Lydia such a fascinating, complicated, and at times loathsome character. It’s a trait that has made her one of the greatest living composers. It has led her to become the Berlin Philharmonic’s first female chief conductor. It’s put her in place to lead the upcoming live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It has even enabled her to publish her own biography.
But we watch as that same confidence that has afforded Lydia so many opportunities crushes the people who dare to get close to her. It’s seen through a collection of relationships she has, mostly business but occasionally personal. They include people such as her diligent assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), her concertmaster and significant other Sharon (Nina Hoss), her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), the manager of her fellowship program Eliot (Mark Strong), and a young Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer).
Field uses these relationships for much of the film’s near 160 minute runtime to try and give us a full picture of Lydia Tár. As a character study it mostly works although it does leave some of the supporting players doing little more than servicing Lydia and her story. It’s a shame because the film sports a compelling cast. But rather than building on them, we get several showy, pretension-soaked scenes that can be a lot of fun, but would be even better if Field would have pushed his story a little more off the rails.
But the film’s self-seriousness eventually gets Field into trouble, especially as he breezes by the heavier subject matter (allegations of inappropriate conduct, sexual harassment, suicide, etc.). None of them gets the attention they need. He also skirts around what seems like important details – the accusations themselves, the backlash, the legal hearings, the consequences.
All of that is exacerbated by some frustrating pacing decisions. The first two hours (plus some) of the film moves at such a patient (and at times borderline lethargic) pace. It can be slow yet it’s often observant. But then in the final 30 minutes it’s as if Field checked his watch and said “We need to wrap this up.” He frantically jumps from place to place as he shows Lydia’s house crumbling down on her. It’s an intentional choice that simply doesn’t have the desired effect. Ultimately it leaves the ending feeling terribly rushed and woefully unsatisfying.
Whether Lydia is conducting in Berlin or teaching at Julliard, Blanchett munches her scenes with a conviction that’s hard to turn away from. At the same time, in many of these very same scenes you can see the movie working hard to earn its prestige status. Take the film’s opening, Lydia’s ego-stroking interview with The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik. It’s an compelling scene, but I found myself more interested in watching what Blanchett was doing than getting an introduction to Lydia Tár. It’s not her fault. It’s just that the scene (like several others) exudes a vanity that almost rivals that of the main character.
“Tár” has a lot to admire even if it doesn’t all coalesce into something truly satisfying. And while it attempts to tackle some pretty hefty issues, its story blurs too many details which does more to obscure any truth than actually reckon with it. So much so that I found it hard to get a grasp the movie’s convictions. For some, Blanchett’s domineering performance will be enough to cover any flaws or at least divert attention away from them. Me, I’m stuck on the fence, appreciating the things that fit with what I hoped the movie would be, and a little frustrated with how things ultimately turned out.