Damage, Control – Tár

It amazes me that Todd Field has only directed three feature films in his career to date, because he has a truly unique ability to draw out some of the best performances from his actors. This is especially impressive because in his films, the characters themselves are either deeply flawed, or at the very least possessed of personality traits that can easily make audiences uncomfortable. He is a virtuoso when it comes to shades of grey and making viewers examine their own senses of empathy and morality as they come to judge his major players. That was the case with In the Bedroom and Little Children, and it certainly continues with Tár.

In what could easily be dismissed as just a Best Actress Showcase meant to allow Cate Blanchett to campaign for her third Oscar (and I concede that it’s a large part of the presentation), Field once again presents us with a very challenging lead put in a position that literally no one would want to be in. But thankfully, he also goes a few steps beyond the minimum here, taking care to put together a really cracking script that subtly lays out all the pieces to the puzzle for our protagonist’s salvation or downfall, depending on the choices she makes. It doesn’t work all the time, but there’s a genuine ambition in the project to do more than just let a tremendous actress show off her chops.

Cate Blanchett is of course more than up to the task as Lydia Tár, who has been appointed as the first woman to lead the Berlin Philharmonic as composer and conductor. She has passion for her work, a charismatic personality, and a deeper knowledge of orchestral music than possibly any film character ever created, so much so that the opening exposition dump is literally a lecture hosted by the New Yorker, moderated by Adam Gopnik, where she demonstrates this expertise to an almost dizzying level.

As she prepares for what may be her greatest work, a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony (she has a near-obsession with the work of Mahler and Leonard Bernstein; no word on Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, or Lester Bangs), we slowly start to see her self-assuredness turn to hubris, as she seeks a tighter grip on just about every aspect of her life. It is in these moments of watching power corrupt her that the movie, and Blanchett’s performance, shine the brightest.

At first this almost manic need for control comes off as witty, insightful, and often downright funny. No better is this illustrated than in an early scene where she teaches a special class at Juilliard and absolutely dismantles a young conducting student called Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who refuses to even acknowledge the work of heterosexual white male composers, even though they make up approximately 99% of all orchestral music to this point. It’s a multi-faceted scene that just about anyone can enjoy on some level. At its most base, it’s a fun takedown of misplaced wokeness, an extreme example of a leitmotif where college students (and to an extent, their parents) openly refuse to broaden their horizons in favor of identity politics and tribalism. But beyond the over-the-top gag, there’s a lovely nuance to the whole affair, as Lydia notes that she herself is a lesbian, and that she’d have had no opportunities at all if she didn’t learn about and even embrace those outside of her demographics. Max, consumed by nerves as this is likely the first time he’s ever been singled out and challenged on an intellectual level, shakes his leg in a rhythm that matches the pace of the entire scene until he buckles from the pressure. Despite her somewhat sardonic approach, it’s clear that Lydia still wants to encourage him. She’s not just picking on him, but trying to push the right buttons to ignite a commitment to art similar to hers, to get him to see his own potential rather than limiting himself. It is no small feat to pull off a scene like this, one that goes on for several minutes, and that has the audience not only laughing, but realizing there’s a point to all of it, and a salient one at that.

However, before long we see the darker side of Lydia’s meticulously constructed worldview. Her wife and first violinist (Nina Hoss) has severe anxieties that require constant attention and medication that Tár simply doesn’t want to be bothered with, especially when she sneaks some of the pills for herself. She hides away in an old apartment she owns, partly to give herself space to think as she works on her music, but also to avoid any stressors she deems unworthy of her attention. She literally threatens a young girl with violence because the child is making fun of her adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevich). As is noted several times in the film, she basically never sleeps, and the fatigue visibly wears on her as the events run their course.

Beyond all that, the main instrument of her potential professional demise comes in the form of one of Lydia’s former students. Never truly seen on screen, Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) was part of a fellowship encouraging women in music, and it is heavily implied that she and Lydia had an affair. Once things were broken off, Krista did not take it well, and couldn’t find a job in the industry. Again, the implication is that Lydia had a hand in this, either directly or not, and she feels little sympathy for Krista, writing her off as emotionally unstable and ordering her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to cut off and delete all communications.

Field and Blanchett tread a dangerous but compelling middle ground throughout all of this. Many of Lydia’s obstacles are of her own making, long term consequences she either couldn’t foresee or simply chose not to. Some, on the other hand, are catch-22s with no chance of a positive outcome. For example, Lydia asks a lot of Francesca because she sees her skill and is preparing her for an assistant conductor position, one that will open up once she rotates out her older assistant (played by Allan Corduner). And even his ouster becomes an impossible moment, as funding from investors (led by Mark Strong in just an awful wig) is contingent on his quasi-firing, but Lydia’s past is something of an open secret, meaning she can’t just give the job to Francesca due to potential negative press and rumors. Similarly, Lydia is instantly taken with a new cellist called Olga (played by actual concert cellist Sophie Kauer), and while her talent is undeniable (she auditions behind stage walls so that she and the others are judged solely on ability), she represents a constant temptation in another situation where no matter what move Lydia makes, it will be second-guessed at minimum and accused of the very wrong kind of “grooming” at worst.

Still, most of the circumstances are within Lydia’s influence, and the choices she makes are what lead to her fate as the film progresses, and the spiral is felt basically in real time. Field’s script aids this in a really creative way that also enhances Blanchett’s performance. At the beginning of the film, when everything’s coming up Lydia, many of her scenes contain extended monologues where Blanchett talks for minutes on end, often with no cuts in the shot, meaning she has a TON of lines to memorize for each sequence. As the story wears on, and Lydia finds herself less and less in control of her situation, her dialogue becomes more curt and scattered, with more edits and camera angles combined with the supporting cast getting more and more of a say in matters, which as a conductor is basically Lydia’s version of Hell. It’s her job to command attention and lead the group. When she can’t do that, everything breaks down, and Field condenses that idea brilliantly into the screenplay itself.

There are some stumbling points along the way. There are unresolved plot threads like a composition book that goes missing and a series of noises Lydia can’t place around her house. There’s an out of place tense scene in a Berlin slum that turns the film into a suspense thriller for a few minutes for no real purpose. There are moments when the movie talks down to the audience just a bit, particularly in the New Yorker interview where esoteric classical music knowledge is treated as common while we’re all trying to keep up. There’s a tacky moment where Lydia mentions Hildur Guðnadóttir as one of the best modern composers, all but a demand from Field for the Academy to nominate her for Original Score again (she won a few years ago for Joker). There’s the fact that Lydia’s last name has an accent on it, even though she’s American and would ostensibly have no reason for it. It’s never explained, and it’s a pain in the ass to copy/paste in this review because I don’t have a special characters menu. I also can’t shake the feeling that the accent is only there in an attempt to prevent easy jokes about “Tar” being in a “sticky situation.” And then of course there are the credits, run in reverse from the acknowledgments all the way back to everyone but the cast, to start the film. If that doesn’t scream “pretentious,” I don’t know what does.

Still, the superlative elements more than balance those bits out. This is a fantastic character study that asks some pretty daring questions. How far does one have to go to achieve greatness? Should we feel sympathy for brilliant people who falter? In an age where social norms encourage us to believe women in cases of sexual misconduct, what do we do when both parties involved are women? In the end, as Lydia herself notes, the success of the art and performance comes down to the intent of the creator. In this story, it’s clear that Lydia as a character has her intentions well in order, even if her execution isn’t, and nearly everything that happens arises from something she – at least initially – meant to do. It’s also clear that Todd Field intended to show a complex figure dealing with complex scenarios that are all too often cast in binary terms. And in both respects, Field and Blanchett expertly accomplish their goals.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What is your favorite Cate Blanchett performance? Are you a fan of orchestral music? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Damage, Control – Tár

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