Now Playing — Tár

For his third feature as a writer-director — and first in more than fifteen years — Todd Field takes a mighty swing. Tár recounts the fall of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), an esteemed conductor on the verge of a monumental career triumph: presiding over the performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic, the venerated orchestra where she makes her professional home. She lives the existence of an towering artistic figure, jetting around to expound wisdom as the subject of a New Yorker Festival interview event and imperiously berate students in a Julliard classroom. At home, she has a devoted wife (Nina Hoss) and a darling daughter (Mila Bogojevic). Lydia generally moves through her refined habitat with the certitude of someone whose talent and drive have allowed her to get and do more or less anything she wants, repercussions be damned.

Field is intensely interested in what that level of questionably earned power does to a person, and he has plentiful recent examples of tumbles from cultural pedestals to draw from in depicting the desperation that rises like bile in the throat when some level of justice is finally served and that power is wrenched away. Lydia has behaved badly behind closed doors, including the use of her position to seduce burgeoning young musicians beholden to the lilts of her baton. After one of those women is discarded by Lydia, in a fashion that the film suggests is hardly uncommon, and subsequently kills herself, the foreboding gears of fate really start to grind. The trickiest element of Field’s film is his resolute refusal to make any detail of this simple. There’s little question of Lydia’s misbegotten choices, but everything is more complicated than heroes and villains. Everyone in the film — as is the case out her on the other side of screen — operates in shades of gray and upon slippery, shifting tiles of context.

As a partner in exploiting all those ambiguities, Field couldn’t have a better collaborator than Blanchett. It’s not surprise that she’s commanding and piercing vulnerable and intricately truthful as the title character, but the effect isn’t dulled one bit by the familiarity of her excellence. When Field stages the Julliard scene as largely one sustained take as Lydia moves about the room, toying with a student whose views she finds unacceptable until she’s ready to deliver what she considers to be a intellectual deathblow, it’s like giving Blanchett a proving ground to take the vehicle of her acting and pin the needle, all the while the engine hums rather than roars.

Much as it pains me at this cinematic moment to express reservations about a film that gives the audience more substantive topics to chew over than, say, what sneak attacks of stunt casting might or might not foretell for franchise-machinery that is still years away, Tár falters badly in its closing scenes. From about the late moment that Lydia steels herself and strides onstage, the film is, to my eyes, kind of a mess. The clarity and authenticity of the first portion of the long film crumbles away as Field opts for a string of narratively suspect indignities all leading to a glib punchline of a final shot. None of this negates the stupendous accomplishment of what came before, but it’s especially unfortunately to exit Field’s opus with its most sour notes still ringing.

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