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Tár

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What it’s about:

Lydia Tár is the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s got it all: a thriving career, prestige, a loving wife, a sweet daughter, and a fellowship she started for aspiring female conductors. But when she’s accused of sexual misconduct, her carefully orchestrated life starts to unravel.

Names you might know:

Two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett just earned a Golden Globe for this performance. You might also recognize Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant and A Most Wanted Man’s Nina Hoss.

Why it’s worth your time:
best actress oscar 2023
Focus Features.

A favorite among film critics, there’s no shortage of reasons why Tár is also considered an Oscar contender. First among them is Blanchett, a tour de force as conductor Lydia Tár, a character who isn’t exactly likable but compels you to keep watching. She plays the titular composer with a quiet condescension that is maddening yet also mesmerizing. A simple smile or raised eyebrow reveals a sinister plot she is concocting, as in one scene, where she eyes the shoes of a potential cellist the way a hawk studies its prey.

In true Blanchett style, she immersed herself in the character: learning German, studying conducting and the piano, and even practicing driving on a racetrack. Her commitment pays off. From the second Tár is introduced, it’s difficult not to feel suffocated by her pretentiousness. She’s interviewed by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (played by himself) who lists off her endless achievements, which she graciously acknowledges with a smug smile.

Thus begins director Todd Field’s exploration of the idea that “what goes up must always come down.” We quickly learn that Tár is a control freak, and Blanchett plays this side of her with utmost precision. Watching her manipulate her orchestra is strangely hypnotic, and some of the most beautiful scenes are centered solely on her movements. Tár’s authority is ever present, even with her wife and daughter. Yet it’s debatable how much she actually values her family; Tár has a side pad and multiple side chicks.

More of an in-depth character study than a psychological thriller, Tár may be the sole film to handle #Metoo and cancel culture with the nuance they require, and the screenplay never reveals how you should feel about them. At no point are Tár’s accusers ever sensationalized, nor are her actions. She is simply a shark who has learned to thrive in the sexist and racist waters of classical music.

The film’s strength lies in its probing of what constitutes abuse of power, and how the pursuit of power in the first place might shape a person. At one point, Tár critiques a student who voices concern over playing Bach and their hopes of exploring more contemporary composers of color. Rather than use this as a teaching moment, Tár ends up belittling the student, a scene that reveals the damage that those in control can wreak, perhaps without even realizing their devastation. It’s scenes like this that expose how abuses of power can come in many forms, and Blanchett’s cool calculation is what makes it feel distressing rather than cringe.

Tár may be director Todd Fields’ magnum opus. His careful blend of cinematography and use of specific classical pieces attenuate Tár’s brilliance. In fact, the film is so striking that Martin Scorsese declared “Tár has lifted the clouds on the ‘dark days’ of cinema.”

The takeaway:

A fascinating exploration of power dynamics in one of the world’s most restricted arenas, Tár casts a compelling light on what drives people to become powerful, the costs of what they can inflict, and how quickly their mantles can crack in our modern world.

Watch it with:

Tár isn’t exactly light viewing, and it runs 2 1/2 hours. But your friends who like thought-provoking dramas and character studies will want to watch it as much as your friend who has season tickets to the symphony.

Worth noting:

Marin Alsop, a real-life female conductor who is briefly referenced in Tár, has called the film “anti-woman.” She questioned why Lydia Tár was portrayed as an abuser in a leadership position when there are so many real-life cases of actual abusive male conductors. Alsop’s comments have started a new conversation about the film’s gender politics and debates about the choice to make the lead a woman. Yet the film’s brilliance lies in the fact that there isn’t an easy answer to this debate, or any of the others it presents. Does the drive and talent it takes to create a masterpiece turn someone into a monster? Should we ignore a successful artist’s privilege and personal life and instead focus solely on what they create? Is Tár a true villain, a victim of “cancel culture,” or a product of her circumstances?

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