There is perhaps no better catnip for actors than playing a tortured artist. However, the danger in it is when the introspection outplays the artistry, and the audience gets lost in the weeds of conceptual pursuit. Such is the case, unfortunately, for writer/director Todd Field’s drama, Tár.
Field is a filmmaker who takes his time. He’s only directed two films in his career up until now, but they were both acclaimed: In the Bedroom in 2001 (five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture) and Little Children in 2006 (three Oscar nominations, including Best Actress). For his third film, Tár, he wrote a character specifically to be played by arguably the best actress alive, Cate Blanchett, and it is a tour de force of character and performance. But the film itself falls short of expectation, relying far too much on Blanchett and asking the audience to travel on an overly long journey that buries itself in its own agenda.
Blanchett plays famous orchestra conductor Lydia Tár, a protégé of Leonard Bernstein who has become the most celebrated maestro on the planet. The only thing that matches her fame is her ego, as Lydia’s narcissism drives her professional and personal life. She lives in Berlin with her wife, Sharon (played brilliantly by Nina Hoss), and their young daughter. She is in rehearsals with the Berlin Philharmonic to record a new interpretation of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. She has the world at her feet and has achieved a level of success and power in her field that many men haven’t achieved, let alone a woman. But when accusations of past improprieties start to surface, Lydia is forced to confront her past and present as her carefully-constructed position high on the podium starts to crumble beneath her feet.
After the film, I overheard one audience member admit their mother was hesitant to see the movie because she thought it would be a thriller about someone going mad, a la Black Swan. And here’s the problem with Tár: it neither commits to nor backs away from elements of the thriller genre. It doesn’t really know what it is. Several threads are pulled on, but none are seen through, so the audience is left with puzzle pieces, hinting that there is a thriller hidden somewhere, but it’s never fully realized. Instead, Tár tasks Blanchett with taking the audience through her character’s downfall with little support, which is truly a thing of acting perfection but leaves far too many unanswered questions in its wake.
The central element of Tár is how it turns the #MeToo movement on its head, centering the bad behavior on a woman instead of a man, which is certainly a refreshing take, but it would have been preferred if they could have also avoided perpetuating the unfortunate stereotype of Lydia being a predatory lesbian, which comes off as a bit tone-deaf in the scope of the film’s overall messaging. Still, the gender-swapping element is interesting, and the reminder that women can be bastards also makes for this film’s compelling core. But Field then gets too tricky with social commentary, specifically about woke and cancel culture, and the film eventually gets bogged down in concept.
It’s as if Field, in the sixteen years since last writing a screenplay, built up so many ideas he wanted to explore, he couldn’t filter out any single one, so he found a way to put them all into this script. If ever there was a film that feels borne out of ideas, it’s Tár, whether it’s long, beautiful monologues about the depth and beauty of music and musical interpretation, or the gender-swapping of #MeToo or the complexity of an ego’s self-destruction, each idea is a textured and challenging one, but when all crammed into the same film, it becomes tedious and overly complicated. And, because he had so much to say and so many concepts to explore, the film runs nearly three hours, easily an hour too long. If it could have been edited down and found a way to focus a bit more, this could have been a much more compelling film.
But, no matter what the film’s overall effect is, there is no arguing the performance that Field pulls out of Blanchett. You can hardly blame him for running this film for nearly three hours, as I can’t imagine wanting to edit out anything she does in this film, her realization of this character is sublime and riveting, as she can find the perfect balance between being despicable and being tortured. We’ve seen mad genius assholes before, but in Blanchett’s hands, there is a ferocious delicacy and a subtle arrogance that runs away from caricature, cliché, and stereotype and yet still embraces familiarity.
We know this woman, we’ve seen this woman, we just can’t remember where. The degrees to her performance get gradually more difficult, but you are so engrossed in it you don’t see the moments the character changes; it truly is a magnificent transformation and will most likely be the Oscar front-runner all the way to March. If all of that weren’t enough, the entire film is worth it just for a short scene towards the end where Blanchett lets it truly fly, a scene absolutely hilarious and bone-chilling, it will go down as one of the best moments in her career.
But even Blanchett, at her best, cannot make the experience of watching Tár enjoyable. After all the anticipation and buildup, knowing Blanchett learned how to play piano and to conduct in preparation for this role, there are far too few actual orchestra scenes in the film. And, considering it’s a movie about the power and complexities of musical interpretation, the fact that the film is practically score-less, even though it credits Oscar-winner Hildur Guðnadóttir as the film’s composer, makes for a surprisingly quiet and dour experience. In the end, if there had only been more Mahler and less meandering, Tár just might have been bravissimo.