Cate Blanchett gives what might be her best performance ever in TÁR

A five-star review of the biopic of Lydia Tár, Todd Field’s first film since 2006.

TÁR begins with a declaration of principles. Adam Gopnik is interviewing Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) — a famous conductor and maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic — for the New Yorker Festival. He asks what she learned from her mentor, Leonard Bernstein (whom she calls “Lenny”). Lydia lands on the Talmudic notion of midrash, an interpretive method of “reading into the past” that he taught her about.

That idea is the key to TÁR, Todd Field’s first movie since 2006’s Little Children, as triumphant a return as can be had. Essentially, this film is interested in the violent collision of past and present, a lofty idea it handles with grace and intelligence. The character of a conductor is a particularly fruitful way to explore this idea since Lydia chooses in each swing of the baton whether to leave a given symphony in the past, playing as its composer intended, or reimagine it, hurling a sometimes centuries-old piece into the now. Of course, in the notion of midrash, the present is as essential to interpretation as the past.

Take the guest lecture Lydia gives at Julliard, during which a self-described “BIPOC pansexual” student professes their distaste for the historical figure of Bach. Lydia pushes them on this, ambushes them really, and they storm out. It sounds cruder on the page than it does in the film — I can not translate into words how Field’s decision not to cut for the entirety of the scene, which enraptures; nor his probing camera, which subtly captures some of the less apparent dynamics going on here; nor can I convey the power of Blanchett’s performance, which may be her best in a career of great performances. It’s rare that actors can command attention as completely as she does.

What we see is a collision of interpretation—though its force, confident as Lydia is, is more like an asteroid smashing into a planet. Yes, as you might be able to tell, this film has to do with cancel culture. Instead of the Manichean framing of the culture wars, though, Field seems interested in examining the phenomenon as a broader difficulty in interpretation. It’s as hard as sitting on a train, looking out at the landscape, trying to stay in motion while keeping the perfect frame of your window frozen in place. At some point, something has to give. “Sublimate your identity” is Lydia’s answer. Clearly she does not recognize that on the level the Talmud is talking about. Her identity, her place in history, is indispensable to this exchange of interpretation. Either that or she is a narcissist who identifies with that planet, who takes her loftiest for granted, and whose gravitational pull naturally leads to concussion with those little things. 

The film’s structure seems indebted to the fugues Bach famously pioneered. We are introduced to a theme, given an exposition and bounce between elaborations on the theme until reaching the coda. We learn more about Lydia’s past through this structure, not through flashbacks but a slow seeping, like liquid soaking through a wood thought impermeable. It is a drawn-out affair, but the 158-minute running time is paced with exquisite precision until her past is there puddled on the ground, and that solid patina has been irreparably ruined. TÁR recalls a line Kubrick liked to say — Kubrick who directed Field in Eyes Wide Shut and whose influences looms large — that “film should be more like music than like fiction,” a “progression of moods and feelings.” 

The progression of moods is subtle until it happens all at once, like the opening movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Lydia practices with the Philharmonic, politics with the orchestra, takes charge of the affairs at home with her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevic), flies between Berlin and New York City. Mahler’s apt notation for that movement is that it be played “at a measured pace. Strict. Like a funeral procession.” As it were, Lydia is conducting Mahler’s 5th for a Deutsche Grammophon recording.

There are about a dozen times Lydia uses “robot” as an epithet to describe those who do not please her, personally or aesthetically. She means that they sublimate their voices, offer none of themselves to their art or vocation, and understand these intellectually but not in their heart. There’s a delicious irony there as it becomes clear she can not understand other people — including her wife and child — as anything but fodder for her own mechanical advancement. She is not innocent by any means, but moralistic questions of innocence and guilt are secondary to Field.

Instead, TÁR is a character study in the least tortured sense. The film is well-composed and brimming with ideas, its structure and form so intelligently thought out, its performers — like Sophie Kauer as a young Russian cellist whose manner is hilariously at odds with Blanchett’s self-fashioned courteousness — so captivating, this is a truly great film. It’s the kind of movie I’d say they don’t make em like anymore if it weren’t coming out this month.

TÁR (directed by Todd Field)

TÁR opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 21, and is now streaming on VOD.

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