A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2023

TAR  jjj

2022, R, 158 mins.

Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár  /  Nina Hoss as Sharon Goodnow  /  Noémie Merlant as Francesca Lentini  /  Mark Strong as Eliot Kaplan  /  Julian Glover as Andris Davis  /  Allan Corduner as Sebastian Goodnow  /  Sophie Kauer as Olga Metkina  /  Sylvia Flote as Krista Taylor  /  Vincent Riotta as Cory Berg

Written and directed by Todd Field



I know so very little about the world of music conductors and composers, which is why I was frankly surprised to learn that writer/director Todd Field's TAR is not based on a true story.  

Like...at all.

It's one of those rare breed of out-of-body pieces of escapism  that feels so lived-in and real that it must be based on a true story, right?  Miraculously, it's not.  Making a return to the director's chair after a long absence (his last film was his critically acclaimed 2006 effort LITTLE CHILDREN), Field has opted to make a fictitious portrait of the titular character, a woman that's an acclaimed pianist, ethnomusicologist, composer, and - we learn very early on in the film - the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.  TAR is also about vanity and ego run amok and how great artists - no matter how ambitious minded, intelligent, and naturally gifted - let their self-absorption get the better of them in highly damaging ways.  That, and Field's third film attempts to be a sobering drama of the post-MeToo movement, albeit with somewhat problematic results (more or that it a bit).  Like LITTLE CHILDREN before it, TAR is a patient (maybe too patient) and observant character study of people navigating dicey moral roads.  The film is also quarterbacked by what just may be Cate Blanchett's most mesmerizing performance of her career, and if one considers the vastness of her superlative resume and work then that's truly saying something.   

The Oscar winning actress plays Lydia Tar, who's a fully fictional composer and conductor.  She has the kind of career that would be the envy of most in her field, and the manner that she conducts herself on a daily basis reflects just that.  She's on the verge of having what would be best described as an all-time high career year as she's prepping an autobiography and is moving to Germany to begin her tireless work to record Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, the latter of which requires - in her mind - every single ounce of her focus and time.  She has a loving and caring wife in Sharon (Nina Hoss) and both share a young daughter in their luxuriously spacious Berlin condo.  Lydia does have to take her work home with her (seeing as her spouse is also her lead violinist), which frequently causes some tension on both fronts.  Unfortunately for Sharon, Lydia is ferociously driven by her career.  Her new assignment is set to be the crowning achievement of her life's work, and nothing will interfere with it.  Even those close in her inner circle - like her tirelessly devoted assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner) and financial backer Eliot (hey, it's Mark Strong playing a nice guy!) - begin to see how fanatical this woman has become. 

Like all great obsessive artists, Lydia becomes consumed by not only her musical purists, but also by two other nasty addictions: drugs and extramarital affairs.  Actually, in regards to the last item, Lydia seems to have this unseemly habit of hooking up and getting uncomfortably close with far younger female musicians that often work under her.  She has now honed in her crosshairs directly at Olga (Sophie Kauer), who's been granted a special spot in her orchestra and, well, let's just say that all is not completely professional and platonic between these two.  While this potentially scandalous event is happening, Lydia's world is further rocked by a mysterious woman in her past referred to as "Krista" that apparently has suddenly taken her life and whose presence in Lydia's life (and the juicy and damaging dirt associated with that) has the power to derail her entire career in short fashion.  Lydia then goes into quick damage control and begins deleting every single piece of vital social media interaction with this woman, but it becomes too little too late for her, and as allegations mount by the day and Lydia's reputation is trampled on she begins to mentally unravel.  This, rather predictably, has horrible consequences for all those around her. 

Fields opens TAR in a simple, by hypnotizing fashion by having Lydia participate in an interview conducted in a vast sold-out theater.  She's being interviewed by actual New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, which adds one layer (upon many) of verisimilitude to this film as a whole.  The sequences goes on for 15 or so minutes, but during said time we get deep inside the headspace of Lydia.  It's not just an contrived expositional dump (granted, we do learn so much about her, like the fact that - beyond her virtuosity as a musician, pianist, and conductor - she has become an EGOT member for winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony).  We also get a glimpse into her uncommon level of knowledge of the musical world, not to mention her dogged arrogance and limitless self-anointed greatness.  It's during this interview that we gain a strong understanding of who this woman is, what she represents, and what makes her tick, and one of the major takeaways from it is that she's also a person totally consumed by her stature and what she's set to attain in her career.  Everyone else will take a back seat...or else.  There's also an unmistakable tease of the physiological horror show to come and a large hint here that the rest of TAR will become harder and harder to watch as it progresses. 



And it does. 

As the rest of the film progresses we grow to realize that this woman is indeed a certified genius, but she's also capable of being a toxic being that relishes in making those that she perceives as being beneath her squirm.  Take one excruciatingly painful to endure scene - all done in one long take - that involves Lydia teaching a class at Julliard.  She has a black pansexual student that takes issue - albeit politely - with her take on Bach.  Basically, she mercilessly takes him apart piece by piece in front on the rest of the students for not taking serious interest in white cisgender composers like Bach.  The manner that she belittles this poor student is a large enough of an insult in itself, but she also perhaps chooses the wrong person to engage in a discussion of propping up dead white/male composers.  The cinematography here by Florian Hoffmeister is on full masterful display in sequences like this and countless others, as Field chooses to employ such fastidious stylistic conceits to reinforce the fanatical desires and drives of his subject matter.  That, and witnessing a totally uncut scene with no edits and all done in one take involving sinewy camera moves really underscores just how unsettling it is for some to share the same space with Lydia.  There's a Kubrickian formalism on display that should hardly be surprising considering Field appeared in the late filmmaker's last film in 1999's EYES WIDE SHUT. 

Field's technique and storytelling choices here coalesce together to make Lydia and her world feel like fact-based entities.  There's something to be said about how slow moving and casual TAR is during its first half, which allows viewers to become engrossed and immersed within the minutia of this woman's daily home and professional life as well as all of her unhealthy passions that will come to get the better of her.  So much of what's on display in the film is so eerily convincing as both a character study and a portrait into the madness behind music, and I can easily see how many may come out of TAR thinking that it's some sort of biopic.  It's pretty extraordinary to concede that, yes, Lydia Tar is a purely make-believe person, but the way that Field frames her story and grounds her in our reality and present gives the film such an uncanny veracity.  Having so many scenes conduct themselves in long unbroken takes is paramount to this, but Field is also keenly observant in the small details that relate to Lydia's ultimate self-implosion.  Her relationship with Olga is key, and what's interesting here is that this young musician is not without talent and clearly deserves her spot on Lydia's crew, but watching the latter conduct herself with this student outside of the orchestra shows how powerful people use their power in unethical ways.  What Lydia doesn't know is that a video of her aforementioned lecture goes out on social media, which is one domino falling that leads to her downfall.  She was simply too proud of herself in the moment to even consider that what she was saying could be damaging to someone, let alone be secretly recorded and used for purposes of character assassination.   

One of the areas that I think TAR stumbles, though, is the concept of power dynamics, gender politics, cancel culture, and the MeToo movement.  Lydia is a vindictive force of power in the film.  There can be no doubt of that.  And it's also about how a powerful person positions herself to take advantage of others.  It's not that the discourse in this film isn't important or relevant, nor does it fail in its portrait of cancel culture coming after prominent woman as well as men.  Lydia is a woman that just so happens to be a musical dynamo and a predatory force all the same.  There are some fascinating complexities at the core of TAR, and the film certainly doesn't let Lydia off the hook for her inexcusable misconduct.  The manner with which she's cancelled, though, is via a heavily edited-out-of-context video of her berating that pansexual student in her class.  She's undoubtedly an unsavory bully and failed to respect this student's ideology at all with her offensive language, but the recording is kind of a hatchet job and its editing radically alters how things actually went down.  I'm not entirely sure what Fields was trying to actually say here about the method of Lydia being cancelled...or about cancel culture as a whole.   Obviously, Lydia deserved what came to her, but the evidence used to condemn and ruin her was skillfully manufactured when it probably didn't even need to be.  For a film that's so long at nearly three hours, I was surprised by how lacking it was in fully tackling these timely issues.  There's also very little exploration of the actual victimized student in question either.  He appears and then disappears, but his presence then reappears later in that video...and not much else.   

To be fair, TAR is not told from the victim's prerogative, but rather through Lydia's twisted mindset.  It's only in the final 40-50 minutes when Field's film becomes wholly engulfing as we witness the post-cancelled Lydia failing to own up to her clear-cut transgressions and opts to maliciously battle to maintain relevance - and power - in her field, but with mostly tragic results. Watching this world implode on her in these final sections is when TAR hits its potent stride, but that's also tied into another problem on display, namely the film's self-indulgent running time.  At a 158 minutes, much of the opening half of TAR is intriguing, to be fair, but sometimes elephantine in its pacing and takes seemingly forever to get to the heart of what it wants to be about.  Field is obviously trying to get viewers as deeply (and unnervingly) embedded in this woman's universe as possible, but it takes roughly an hour and a half before the film achieves any kind of sustained lift-off.  Some long films earn their length and don't feel it, but TAR has difficulty justifying its bloat and probably would have been better rendered in a shorter cut.  This also might be too impenetrably cold of a film to sit through for many considering its subject matter.  That's not to say that you can't make a great or long film about bad people, but TAR's overall meticulousness in its slow burn story rollout will definitely have many checking their watches throughout. 

Deep down, the fundamental core of the storytelling and themes here are not all that revelatory (it's yet another horror show about a person that has attained unparalleled success and respect in their career that turns out to be a monster in plain sight) and - as alluded to already - I wished that Field maneuvered around these ideas with more precision and thoughtfulness.  Still, his pure filmmaking craftsmanship is on bravura display throughout (this is an exquisitely shot film through and through) and he makes Lydia feel like someone torn from our headlines despite being the product of his fertile imagination.  And, last but not least, Blanchett is flat-out remarkable in this film as her woman of intelligence, refinement and culture that's also a chillingly manipulative control freak that becomes haunted by maintaining her prominence at a cost of her soul and destroying lives in the process.  Beyond that, she's called upon to speak fluent German, play the piano in a fully realistic manner to look like a professional, and engage as a conductor of a full orchestra.  There's never a moment in the film when you doubt her as this person.  It's simply one of the great pieces of deep-dive performance commitment of recent movie memory, and Blanchett is so incredible here that it almost inadvertently sidelines many of the other nuanced and decent supporting turns from actors like Strong, Merlant, and Hoss.  In the end, I was more taken in with TAR's overall aesthetic and its lead actress' show stopping turn than I was with the overall narrative and handling of its troubling themes, which is what holds Fields' film out of reach for me in terms of attaining true greatness.  However, when TAR goes for those high notes and reaches for dramatically intense crescendos it undoubtedly soars.

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