Monday, March 27, 2023

Tár: Vitriol

Cate Blanchett with Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist in Tár.

Todd Field’s Tár is one of those self-important, self-promoting movies of the moment that might as well be waving a banner that proclaims, “You’d better take me seriously.” It’s angry but the anger is generalized, and though it takes on the hot-button topic of celebrity sexual misconduct, it doesn’t present a coherent argument. Field must believe that if it did, it couldn’t pass itself off as complex and provokingly unresolved. Tár reminded me of a number of movies I despise:  Sidney Lumet’s alleged attack on television, the 1976 Network (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky); half a decade earlier, Mike Nichols’s alleged critique of the superficiality of American sexual relationships, Carnal Knowledge (screenplay by Jules Feiffer); two decades earlier than that, Billy Wilder’s puffed-up indictment of tabloid journalism and the callousness of the American public, Ace in the Hole (screenplay by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman). All of these films substituted bitterness and cynicism for character logic and used them as battering rams, and Tár follows suit. The discomfort they heap on audiences is supposed to be an indication of profundity, proof that they’re revealing ugly truths that only morally committed filmmakers would have the courage to put on the screen. But there isn’t a convincing moment in Tár. It’s two hours and forty minutes of foul-smelling hot air. No wonder Field – who both wrote and directed – hasn’t made a movie in sixteen years. (His debut feature, the shallow, manipulative In the Bedroom, came out in 2001; his second, Little Children, a saga of paralyzed suburbanites that flatters the audience by putting us in a position from which we can look down at the pathetic characters, followed in 2006.) It takes a long time to store up so much rancid baloney.

Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a conductor whose CV reads like it was made up by a publicist. She’s the most famous conductor in the world, the only woman ever to lead the Berlin Philharmonic; she’s also a pianist, composer, expert on indigenous music, co-sponsor of a generous fellowship program for young conductors, author of a bestselling memoir titled Tár on Tár, and the sole woman to make the very short list of those who have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy. She divides her time between Berlin, where her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), first violinist of the orchestra, and their adopted little daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) and, you know, the rest of the world, which is, after all, her oyster. On a trip to New York that opens the movie, Adam Gopnik interrogates her for a New Yorker talk, mixing adoration with that hip knowingness that wants to give us the impression that interviewer and interviewee belong to the same exclusive club. If John Guare, the great dramatist who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, had penned this scene, it would be satire, but he didn’t and it’s not; I’m not sure what it is, exactly, or how we’re supposed to read Lydia’s character, since not one sentence she utters sounds like it comes from a real human being, and sometimes her turn of phrase is impenetrable, like that of a defective robot. In the next few scenes we find out that she’s ruthless and transactional and cold-hearted, but the movie’s conclusion seems to be that she’s also entirely self-invented, with nothing behind her mask. The problem is that presumably you don’t get to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and Deutsche Grammophon doesn’t contract you to record all of Mahler’s symphonies if you’re not phenomenally talented, and don’t you need some kind of soul to lead a first-class orchestra in playing Mahler?

The movie is nasty but never fun, and it consists of one scene after another that rings false – like the one where Sharon expresses her anxiety over Petra’s “disappearing into herself” (she must be all of eight years old, for God’s sake) or the call-and-response poem Lydia and Petra recite in the limo en route to her school. It turns out that she’s being bullied by a slightly older girl in the schoolyard, so Lydia corners the offender before school, threatens to make her life miserable and warns her that if she repeats the threat no one will believe her because she’s a kid and Lydia’s an adult – which makes Tár look like a child molester. It’s all performative, like Lydia attacking the podium at a rehearsal of Mahler’s Fifth (the climactic work in her Mahler set, which is now about to be recorded before a live audience) as if she were at a martial arts demonstration. Invited to give a master class at Juilliard, she asks a young Black man (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) about Bach and gets him to admit that he’s not interested in some old white guy who sired so many children he must have been a misogynist. Her hyper-educated cooled-out responses are so high-flown and insulated that you can’t imagine he could possibly understand half of what she says; still, he laughs at her jokes but she makes him so nervous that he can’t control his restless leg. But he stands his ground about Bach. So she gets him to sit next to her at the piano and plays some, and she seems to be softening up his biases. But then she humiliates him in front of the class and he storms out, muttering, “Fucking bitch,” as he marches past her. The scene is mildly amusing but it isn’t drama; it’s more like an idea for a dramatic scene. And when we find out that Tár has been using her power to get various young female musicians into bed and boosting her favorites’ careers, and that her blackballing one young woman in the fellowship program drives her to suicide, then we can’t even trust the way Field seems to position it as a put-down of identity politics. It turns into another exposé of the callous, insulated world Lydia Tár is supposed to embody – while also, ultimately, being victimized by.

Field is an awful director. His notion of editing is to cut, for example, from Lydia reading the increasingly desperate emails from the young conductor whose career she’s short-circuited (emails that she asks her assistant to delete) to a shot of her assaulting a punching bag at the gym; or from a scene where she trips and smashes into the pavement because she thinks she’s being pursued to a shot of her pounding dough in her kitchen. Otherwise the movie’s rhythms are stalled, clunky. Sometimes you have to run scenes over in your mind afterwards to figure out what precisely happened in them – and you don’t always succeed. Her fall on the pavement occurs when she ventures into a slum apartment where her current crush, a Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer), is living to return a stuffed animal Olga left in her limo and gets so freaked out by the environment that she imagines a would-be assailant tailing her. At least, I think that’s what’s going on; the sequence is ominous, like something in a horror film, but the visuals are so indistinct that I had to guess. I couldn’t make head or tail out of a scene where Lydia is awakened in the night by a percussive sound in the kitchen that turns out to be a metronome in a cupboard, or an earlier one where, jogging in the park – Field has included an entire motif of images of her jogging, I assume to underscore her relentless drive – she hears a woman screaming, makes a half-hearted attempt to track down the sound, and then abandons the search.

As Lydia’s career and her personal life collapse in the midst of the case against her brought by the dead girl’s parents, and the protagonist appears to lose her sanity, Tár disintegrates into a series of melodramatic set pieces that are about as plausible as the ones in Black Swan but without the camp energy that made that movie perversely entertaining. In one, she stalks through a rented apartment, screaming a song and accompanying herself on the accordion, to aggravate her landlords. There’s even a madwoman in the attic. Good luck figuring out the interlude where Lydia, who winds up in the Philippines when her life falls apart, visits a masseuse recommended by the desk clerk at her hotel and finds herself in a brothel.

Blanchett is a fantastic actress but here everything she does is affected; the only commendable element in her performance is that when she gets up in front of an orchestra, you have no trouble accepting that she’s a professional conductor. It’s not her fault; the role is unplayable. As Tár’s long-suffering wife, who puts up with her chronic infidelities, Hoss – who was splendid as a violin teacher in an overlooked German picture called The Audition a couple of years ago – provides the movie’s only consistent spark of humanity. Two fine actors, Mark Strong and Allan Corduner, get sabotaged by underwritten parts that call for nothing but attitude. As her assistant/ex-lover Francesca, Noémie Merlant mostly makes faces; Field didn’t bother to write the scenes that would have made sense of her character.

After the opening of Tár, which (you realize much later) introduces the movie’s frame story, Field inserts the credits – but not the actors’ names or those of the main creatives. Instead we get screen after screen of names of technicians, while on the soundtrack we hear indigenous music that has only the most tenuous link to the movie. (One of Lydia’s accomplishments, Gopnik mentions by way of introduction at the New Yorker talk, is her research into indigenous music.) It’s a test for the viewers: are we serious enough filmgoers to sit through five minutes of credits we couldn’t possibly care about before the movie even gets started? This decision is linked to the paucity of humor in the movie and to the fact that, though Lydia slips back and forth between German and English when she’s coaching the musicians during rehearsal, Field doesn’t translate the German for us. It’s fascinating that in a movie that indicts the classical music world for its snobbery, among other things, Field seems to be operating under the same assumption: if we don’t get it, then maybe we don’t deserve to.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  


  1. Gopnik is misspelled the first time

  2. Hi Steve, Donald here: Totally agree. I couldn't actually watch more than twenty minutes of this visual-emotional binge fiasco.And a very long twenty minutes it was.