Cate Blanchett’s latest Oscar friendly tour de force, Tár, is also the much anticipated and hyped return of actor-turned-filmmaker Todd Field.
Following the well-received In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), Field surprisingly vanished from the public eye for unknown reasons for the next 15 years, but is finally back to share his vision and talent with movie lovers.
A fancy character study set in the orchestra community with one of the greatest living leading ladies of our time sure sounds like a great way to come back to the big screen. And for the most part, neither artist disappointed.
Taking place mainly in modern day Berlin, Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is the most respected, successful and talked about symphony conductor and composer of her generation. She has a big concert coming up at the same time as she is fighting to control personal demons.
Away from the stage and music school auditorium, Lydia is a wife and mother, but also obsessed and dedicated to her career the same way a lot of her male peers are. The middle-aged star is haunted by a former student committing suicide after Lydia declined to recommend her for a conducting position, and she’s fixated on a new, young celloist, Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer) studying to join the Berlin Philharmonic.
Nina Hoss co-stars as Lydia’s wife, Noémie Merlant plays the conductor’s personal assistant and Mark Strong appears as an old colleague of the title character. It’s a testament to Field’s strengths as a storyteller that Tár pretty much succeeded where I thought Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky’s The Good House failed in centering a lot of serious and relevant issues around a successful older woman.
We see right away in Tár that Lydia is not a nice person. She’s blunt, divisive and a “hard ass” to her peers. Through Lydia’s eyes we experience the effects of fame-induced anxiety, perfectionism of an artist, midlife crises, and even “cancel culture.”
Does Lydia deserve her backlash? Is she a reliable narrator or are we biased towards her as a viewer? Field is wise enough to be subtle with his direction and not pander too much to one side or defensively deny the other. This is probably the safest, most realistic way to go, and choosing a complicated woman instead of a man works well.
Blanchett is effortlessly brilliant as usual, but I was most impressed with Merlant. Only three years ago the French actress was struggling to speak some sentences in English during interviews for her breakthrough lead performance in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Now she’s performing in her first American film and speaking a second language seemingly naturally.
Though some in the orchestra field might have to suspend disbelief regarding the accuracy of the conducting, Tár delivers as a showcase of cinematic artistry.