- Colin Fraser
THREE AND A HALF STARS When conductor Lydia Tár flies too close to the sun, there's only one way to go.
DRAMA US English #TAR
Starring Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss
Todd Field’s film is an infuriating blend of something and nothing that still, weeks after release and now in the shadow of Cate Blanchett’s BAFTA win (she plays the titular, troublesome and troubled conductor), keeps the discourse flowing. A sign of greatness surely? Well, perhaps.
Lydia Tár is at the height of her powers both in terms of her profession and her ability to shape the world around her. She lives in a rarified sphere of private jets, six star hotels and an art-directed, brutalist apartment in Berlin whose Philharmoniker she conducts. She flies high, a significant force in man’s world and entitled to be proud of her achievements. But as Icarus learned, nothing is certain, nothing is forever. Accusations of bullying and favouritism are levelled at the conductor, accusations that stick and precipitate a spectacular fall from grace.
This, on the face of it, is the story of TÁR and were that all, it is a modest one that owes everything to Blanchett’s gripping performance. Field’s determination to defocus the assertions, to keep our view of Lydia’s world opaque places us on one side of newspaper headlines. From our perspective she’s probably the victim of cancel culture, a woman with drive and purpose but no more. Yet to those on the inside she’s an unsympathetic killer queen who orchestrated her own demise. Are they right? Are we right? This deliberate obfuscation makes it difficult to form an opinion. It’s likely Field’s point yet it also makes it difficult to care - how can we, without knowing more?
He lays out this framework in the delicious opening scene where Tár meets a fawning (real life) arts journalist on stage. He outlines her considerable achievements, they present as naturally sparring, unrehearsed (“what a good question”) yet are so clearly on script. This is Lydia for the public; known, but unknowable. Her bullying is revealed to us when challenging a student over their resistance to perform the music of Bach ‘the misogynist’. It shows her refusal to be led, a willingness to push her students, hard, and eases us in to a dialogue about cancel culture. But what does it say of Tár? Is she a bully, or just forcefully opening the minds of her students? Again, her behaviour is opaque at best.
This is the film’s strength, and its weakness. As these lines push forward, less and less is known about Field’s central character, her beliefs and by extension (and most importantly), Field’s beliefs. What is he asking, what is he trying to say? The more he leaves that decision to us, the less vital his story becomes. It’s interesting, always, but is it profound in the way we’re led to think it is, or ought to be? That takes us back to the flowing discourse that, weeks after first viewing, continue.
And that brings us back to Blanchett and her searing performance. Were it not for her, TÁR would have been a quickly discarded arthouse curiosity made for Field’s fans. With her it, like Lydia Tár herself, it becomes a force of nature that hooks audiences and keeps them watching despite the over-long, two and a half hour run time. Despite the contrariness of the lead character. Despite the wavering tone and a lack of clarity and purpose. Despite so much, TÁR will keep you talking. But is it great? Well, perhaps.