'Tár': Cate Blanchett is Breathtaking in Todd Field's Spellbinding Drama
It's been 16 years since filmmaker Todd Field's previous film, 2006's Little Children. Given how well both that film and his debut feature, In The Bedroom were received by critics and audiences alike, it's surprising that it has taken this long for him to make another film. But after all this time, he has finally returned with Tár, a massive, yet intimate character study centered on a successful conductor and composer. However, the tale that Field has crafted is a bit more complex than just that, as he uses this premise as a springboard to make commentary on power dynamics, the digital age, and cancel culture, among other potent and relevant themes. It may have been a long time since Field has been in the director's chair, but he certainly wastes no time here, as he delivers a film that feels tailor-made for our current social climate. It is easily his most ambitious and challenging effort to date, and it is an incredible, haunting work of cinema.
As Tár begins, we are introduced to Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett), a world-renowned composer and conductor. She is preparing to conduct a live recording of Mahler's 5th Symphony, and has several other projects in the works. For much of the first act, we mainly focus on Tár's successes, but as the film progresses, we learn more about who she truly is, and explore what happens when her actions come back to bite her.
To go further into the plot of Tár is to rob it of its magic. I went in mostly blind and was blown away by how the story unfolded and just what all Todd Field accomplishes here. There's certainly a lot of specific details to discuss in regards to the film, but I recommend knowing as little as possible going into it. That said, the way the film depicts the character of Lydia Tár and how it explores her moral grayness is absolutely masterful. There are so many small details all throughout the film that come together to create a meticulous, complicated, and beguiling portrait of a woman as she falls from grace. The actual narrative is a bit slow and talky, but it is so intricately crafted and so intentional that it works perfectly. On top of that, the film tackles modern social issues in a way that is direct, but never feels heavy-handed. Field explores aspects of cancel culture and controversy in the digital age with such naturalism, and allows them to speak for themselves instead of laying them on way too thick. I hesitate to say that what Field is saying with this film is subtle, as it seems pretty clear and obvious for the most part. However, he does this in a way that feels so quiet and simple, while also speaking volumes and being extremely thought-provoking. It is a difficult balance to strike, but Field absolutely nails it.
So much of this film works purely because of Field's screenplay, but his directorial work here is equally as impressive. He has such a control over the film's tone, and slowly lets the story unfold to give the film its maximum impact. While the slow burning nature of the film might turn some off, I personally love how Field uses this to let specific elements and story details sink in deep, and allows us to truly get to know the character of Lydia Tár in the process. So much of how he portrays her and her actions feels so natural, and allows her to feel like an actual person. It also gives the her character so much weight, and makes the things she says and does all the more effective. There are so many smaller scenes that feel so integral to the film, as its almost like a dot in a pointillist painting. Each one comes together to show us who Lydia Tár truly is, and even the most microscopic detail has a great purpose in doing this. I was so entranced by how Field allows everything to unfold, and he truly delivers an incredibly profound and poignant character study that is so much more than what it appears to be on the surface.
What truly surprised me is how breathtaking the camera work is in this film. You wouldn't think that a film like this would have truly dynamic cinematography, but I was blown away by what Florian Hoffmeister pulls off here. The way a lot of the film's shots are composed are so excellent, and had me geeking out all throughout it. There is also this incredible oner in the film's first act that is so brilliantly choreographed and uses perspective in an extremely visceral way. It is arguably the cornerstone of the whole film, both on a technical level, as well as a thematic one. Between what Hoffmeister is doing with the camera, and what Field is doing in terms of storytelling, it is an amazing scene that plays perfectly into the film's larger themes, and is a great bit of meta-commentary as well.
With music being a crucial element of the film, it's important that it has a great score. While some of the music used is from classical composers like Gustav Mahler and
Edward Elgar, it also has an excellent score from Academy Award winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Much like the rest of the film, it is a bit quieter, but still powerful in its own right. It does get a bit dwarfed by the selections from other composers that make up a fair amount of the film, but it is still quite good nonetheless. The music as a whole is deployed so perfectly, especially in the film's diegetic scenes like those with the orchestra, or the scenes where Cate Blanchett plays the piano.
Any great character study needs a compelling actor at its center, and there is no one else who could have played Lydia Tár as phenomenally as Cate Blanchett. It's no secret that Blanchett is one of the world's most beloved actors, and I personally don't believe I've ever seen a downright bad performance from her. She has given so many excellent performances over the year, but this just might be her crowning achievement. She so fully and specifically embodies the character, and makes it seem so effortless. It is such a full-bodied performance that allows Blanchett to play a deeply complicated person, and she portrays her actions in a naturalistic way that gives the character some added dimension. It may sound a bit cliché to say that disappears into the role, but she truly does. She makes Tár feel like a real person, which makes the events of the film feel all the more potent. This is arguably the best performance of her whole career, and I can definitely see her taking home her third Oscar for her work here.
While Blanchett is undeniably incredible in this film, I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the film's excellent supporting cast. I was particularly struck by Nina Hoss, who plays Tár's partner, Sharon. She has a fantastic screen presence, and plays off Blanchett beautifully in their scenes together. She also does some great non-verbal acting, with a scene that repeatedly cuts to her reacting to Tár addressing the orchestra as a prime example of this. Hoss also gets a powerhouse scene near the end of the film, that acts as a satisfying pay-off for the energy and tension that has been mounting with the character throughout the film. It's easily one of the best scenes of the film, and so much of that is because of Hoss's performance. I also loved Noémie Merlant's performance, as she similarly gets a lot out of her character's quieter moments. Merlant plays Francesca, Tár's beleaguered personal assistant, and while her character might not have as much to do in the film as a whole, she is still an important part of it. She is such an excellent actor, and she is able to do so much with so little in a skillful way. I also enjoyed Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, and Mark Strong's performances, as they make the most of their time on screen, and add some personality to the film.
There are so many things I could say about Tár, and so much more that I want to discuss in this review, but again, I recommend going into this film knowing as little as possible. What I will say for now is that it is hauntingly beautiful, and that it is is so timely and powerful. It says a whole lot over the course of the film, and dives into some deeper themes that provide some serious food for thought. This is a film that I will be thinking about for a long time, and the more I sit with it, the more I love it. There is so much to digest with Tár, and I'm sure that the more I think about it, and with repeat viewings, I will pick up even more within it. This film really spoke to me, and is an incredible statement on cancel culture, artistry, perception, and many more powerful ideas. I sincerely hope that Todd Field doesn't wait 16 more years to make another film, as he is an immensely talented filmmaker, and he is clearly capable of much more than I realized. This is easily my favorite of his films, and is likely to be one of my favorite films of the decade. Tár is phenomenal in every sense of the word, and is a truly compelling, ambitious, and rewarding cinematic experience.