If for nothing else, Todd Field’s “Tár” – a razor-sharp, post-post-MeToo character study that premiered on Thursday at the Venice Film Festival – should be heralded for offering a neat corollary to Chekhov’s Gun, a theatrical theory that states that if you introduce a gun in Act 1, you’d better fire it by Act 3.
Call this version Gopnik’s Speech. Because no film could open, as “Tár” does, with such a long and portentous introduction to the main character (She’s at the top of her game! She’s on a nickname basis with Leonard Bernstein! She’s a bloody EGOT!), delivered by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik playing himself, without clearly signaling its intent: for the two-and-a-half hours that follow, our poor protagonist will have nowhere to go but down.
And down she will go, falling from grace, and from the highest perch of the highbrow scene (see that fawning introduction) over the course of a tightly wound and impeccably crafted showcase for Cate Blanchett at her peak. Only as it careens towards an inevitable destination, “Tár” works more as psychological portrait than narrative freighter, putting you in the room with (and in the head of) a professional control freak as her life spirals out of control, all while observing the fallout with eerie calm. Tempests are always calmest from the eye of the storm.
Lydia Tár, as we quickly learn, is a conductor, perhaps the most acclaimed one alive, and that makes her a despot. But then, how else can she be? What is a conductor if not a manipulator, an absolute authority playing the musicians who in turn play their instruments, all to service the sublime?
For this capo di tutti capi, there is no offstage: Her life is her work, her work is her life, her wife is her co-worker and those co-workers answer to Lydia. That wife would be Sharon (Nina Hoss), a member of Lydia’s philharmonic with whom she shares an austere Berlin flat and a precocious young daughter. Although the word share might be doing some heavy lifting there, as Lydia also keeps a side-place all for herself and a number of side-flings. As Lydia says in a casually self-revealing line, a musician’s “only home is the podium.”
Mind you, our Tár oh so rarely bares her soul. She is the predator, not the prey, a shark with a pantsuit and a power walk cutting her way through each and every room. As a filmmaker, Field plays the long game, staging the film’s first act as a series of interactions, all shot in unflashy but still noticeable unbroken takes, that find the alpha dog using her every wile – be it tenderness or eloquence or wit –to dominate her every foil.
In the moment, the technique offers the theatrically trained Blanchett a stage on which to shine, lending the actor a certain tool more common to theater than film: the sense of unbroken time that jolts the viewer into the present tense. Only those set-ups pay off in richly cinematic ways later on, especially once that always-immediate-but-never-embodied beast of social media rears its ugly head.
So is this thin narrative, which follows the conductor’s fall from grace when news of past misconduct comes to light, really about Cancel Culture? Well, not quite. But through references to the pandemic, allusions to contemporary politics and culture and meta-winks (at one point, Lydia praises the music of Hildur Guðnadóttir – the film’s very composer), “Tár” is very much anchored to the here and now. As such, it engages both playfully and provocatively with the topics that animate social media. Topics like race, topics like gender, topics like – well, just log on to Twitter and find out. Just as Lydia goes viral, so too will “Tár” – it’s designed to.
Which is to say, it’s designed to challenge using the lingua franca of the day. Less reactionary than reactive, “Tár” owes yet another debt to the stage in the way it wrangles this or that topic inflaming the current debate and funnels them all into a contained narrative driven almost entirely by interpersonal power exchanges. In the abstract, it has the form of a modern drama, and feels like the play David Mamet has been trying to write for the past 15 years.
Still, for all this talk of theater, the film is rich with cinematic texture, from Florian Hoffmeister’s chilly widescreen cinematography, which lights otherwise unremarkable interior as if each was a haunted house, to the elaborate audio design, symphonic all on its own, doing as much justice to door creaks and to ambient noise as to Mahler’s 5th.
As Lydia’s wife and as her assistant Francesca, actors Hoss and Noémie Merlant (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) do fine supporting work, but both are only singing backup to the lead out in the spotlight. In function and in form, they hover in Lydia’s orbit.
And what of Lydia then? Well, it sounds a bit obvious to praise another Cate Blanchett performance – when is she not on fire? – but in this case circumstances force our hand. More otherworldly than Galadriel, more regal than Elizabeth, and more devilishly unrepressed than Carol Aird, “Tár” might just be the actor’s signature role.