Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Phantom chimes at night produce an atmosphere that could tumble into horror movie territory, but the real damage is done during the day."

In Berlin, principal conductor and Leonard Bernstein protégé, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, winner of Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and the singing voice of the tiger in Julian Rosefeldt's sensational Euphoria), lives with her partner, concertmaster Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and their daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) in a cave-like, modern, tastefully impersonal apartment, while she keeps her old flat on the side as an office for composing and whatever else some people need a spare one for. Tár mistreats her doting assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), plays favourites, acts ruthlessly towards those in a weaker position, and is on constant prowl for new prey. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Petra von Kant and, by proxy, François Ozon’s Peter von Kant came to mind in several situations.

Todd Field’s heavy film (Golden Globe nominations for Best Film, Screenplay, and Actress, Drama) opens with Tár on stage to promote her book Tár on Tár on Nan Talese’s imprint at Doubleday (Gay Talese told me he liked the shout-out to his wife and loved the film) in conversation with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who plays himself, giving us her monstrously impressive bio. The lines between parody and seriousness are never clearly defined. On the one ear, it’s all about Mahler. “Well Adam” she says “the Shipibo-Konibo only receive an icaro, or song, if the singer is there.” You must know that in her past as a scholar at Harvard she had studied in the Amazon. While we hear the two of them talk, the visuals take us to a making and fitting for a new bespoke suit for her.

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Always a presence in the background is Francesca and her wordless reactions give further clues about her boss’s personality and habits. At the reception after the talk we and Francesca watch Tár deep in conversation with a fan (Whitney Reese, played by Sydney Lemmon) who sports a red “fantastic handbag,” an object that will return and give not-so-subtle clues later on, back at the home base in Berlin.

Everything is connected with everything and her world feels like a house of cards. During a masterclass at Juilliard, one of her students, Max (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) tells Tár that he is “really not into Bach” because “as a BIPOC pangender person” he can’t take him seriously. Max’s leg is shaking as he sits next to his professor at the piano. She stops his leg and warns: “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformists.” Who is she? Where does she stand? Can we condemn her one moment and be impressed the next?

The strength of Tár is that it presses so many buttons. Ultimately, power dynamics are everywhere. Sexual harassment, micro aggressions and all the trigger words, such as cancel culture and gaslighting can be thrown around when discussing the story of her life. Then add a particularly traumatic sequence about elder abuse and the farce of loving thy neighbor to the mix and you might as well give up on humanity.

Sprinkled throughout, we hear about a former protégée named Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) who comes across as a stalker or victim, depending on whom you ask. There is a possible subplot, one of many, about pill addiction and when Tár and Sharon slow dance to Count Basie’s Li’l Darling and talk about their child “starting to disappear into herself” after being bullied by a girl at school, you wish for more scenes like this, to catch a breath, have a moment to reflect before the next emotional hand grenade is being thrown.

And then, when Tár tells off the bully in the schoolyard, in accented, but perfectly pointed German, you can’t help but applaud her pluckiness to invoke God who sees everything and the threat that she’s going to get her. As cellist Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer) enters the picture, and old Sebastian (Allan Corduner) who worked at the Philharmonic forever, may leave it, the machinations go into a new gear.

Phantom chimes at night produce an atmosphere that could tumble into horror movie territory, but the real damage is done during the day. Tár likes to box and to run through Berlin dressed as a kind of Fantômas, a cat burglar whose ruthlessness brought her far. Olga, fan of Clara Zetkin, not a vegetarian, and clearly a go-getter, may remind Tár of herself, despite the differences.

There is a lot of fantastic music to be heard, especially by Gustav Mahler; “but forget Visconti” our protagonist says. Which reminds us in contrast, that visually there really is nothing particularly interesting to see. When large chunks of her life collapse, so does the movie. After a fall, her face is disfigured. We see the house she grew up in and hear her mentor Lenny on tape, the Juilliard class comes back to haunt her.

Marlon Brando and crocodiles get a scenic mention (connected to Francis Ford Coppola’s shooting of Apocalypse Now), but one wonders if that trip was at all necessary to end the film. What it does say is that The Carlyle hotel in New York is a thing of the past for our heroine and newly costumed demons have seamlessly replaced the old.

A precise and angry manual on how to really hurt people all around, wrapped in sleek corporate clothing is not really getting under anybody’s skin, which is right up many Academy voters’ alley. The fact that the “genius” abuser is a woman in this case, is certainly a calculated decision, as is the stab at the Juilliard student’s self-identification. If this is meant to highlight the process of the abuse of power or conservative manipulation is up for anyone’s guess. Despite the bravura performance by Blanchett, Tár remains a construct.

Reviewed on: 19 Dec 2022
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Set in the international world of classical music, this film centres on Lydia Tár. widely considered one of the greatest living composer/conductors and first-ever female chief conductor of a major German orchestra.
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Director: Todd Field

Writer: Todd Field

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Mila Bogojevic, Sylvia Flote, Sydney Lemmon, Mark Strong, Allan Corduner, Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist, Adam Gopnik

Year: 2022

Runtime: 158 minutes

Country: US

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