Careening Toward Disaster

‘Tár’
Cate Blanchett in ‘Tár’ (Focus Features)

Few directors have whetted anticipation more keenly, or for longer, than Todd Field, who burst onto the scene in 2001 with In the Bedroom, a devastating account of a middle-aged couple who suffer the sudden, violent loss of a grown child. Field’s insight in this near-perfect film lay in understanding how the seismic pressures of grief will exploit the fault lines of even a happy marriage, setting off eruptions of wounding rage. Script, camerawork, editing, and acting all combined to capture a marriage imploding in recrimination, and the result was a deftly calibrated, profoundly harrowing study of two people driven wild by grief.

In the Bedroom notched five Oscar nominations and thrilled critics. Eager fans had to wait five years for Little Children, which added three more Oscar nominations to Field’s résumé, and then fifteen more years, during which the director pursued a number of unrealized projects—including a planned Showtime adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity—before deciding to build his third movie around a highly topical and high-concept question: In the age of #MeToo, what if the Harvey Weinstein–like perpetrator were a woman, and a lesbian to boot? And thus we have Tár, a workplace-ethics, sexual-exploitation drama that offers a brooding, somber meditation on the pathology of power.

Tár is a very long movie that seems like two or even three different movies bundled together. Its first hour-plus sets up as contemporary social realism, beginning with an onstage interview with the famed conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who plays himself. Gopnik’s fulsome introduction of Tár details her glimmering résumé and lauds her as an EGOT—winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. Having conducted all Big Five American symphony orchestras (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia), Tár is now ensconced as the first female conductor of the vaunted Berlin Philharmonic, and Nan A. Talese at Doubleday is publishing her memoir, Tár on Tár—“a perfect stocking stuffer,” Gopnik chortles, “if you have a really big stocking!”

Tár herself—or rather, her onstage presence in the interview—is just as impressive. Describing her ethnographic field work in the Amazon; citing her mentor Leonard Bernstein on the concept of teshuvah; detailing the crisis in Gustav Mahler’s life when his wife, Alma, left him for Walter Gropius; telling a droll story about a seventeenth-century French composer who injured himself with his conducting staff and died of gangrene—bing bang bop, it’s the nimble cultural volleying of a performer at the top of her game, as well as an adroit rendering of a highbrow, 92nd-Street-Y kind of Manhattan cultural event, where the apt reference or zingy bon mot triggers a murmur of faintly self-congratulatory pleasure—the smart interviewer, the brilliant cultural star, the audience that gets it.

Tár’s performance continues in the next scene, during the master class in conducting she teaches at Juilliard, where she prowls the room, dishing out an entertaining but caustic monologue and wielding a stiletto wit on students to reinforce her points. It is an old-school, deeply male pedagogy, replete with smiling, scathing takedowns; and our awareness of the dissonance between Tár’s overbearing teaching style and our era’s sensitivities creates a gripping dramatic irony, as we watch her careening heedlessly toward disaster. When a student conductor remarks that he’s “not really into Bach,” explaining that “as a BIPOC pangender person, Bach’s misogynistic life makes it impossible for me,” Tár pounces. Scolding the kid—“Don’t be so eager to be offended!”—she then sits him down next to her at the piano, where she plays a Bach melody and continues riffing at his expense. If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his category, she warns, “so can yours.” Reminding the class that the composer of the piece under consideration is (a) Icelandic, and (b) “a super-hot young woman,” Tár asks, “How can any of these things possibly relate to the person you see sitting before us?” Humiliated, the student leaves.

Cancel culture provides the spark, but what Field is interested in is the combustion: not Lydia Tár’s professional undoing, but her psychological unraveling.

Evidence of the conductor’s toxic egotism continues to pile up back in Berlin, where she lives with her long-suffering wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss). In a startling incident at their young daughter Petra’s school, Tár approaches another little girl, who has been teasing Petra, and smilingly informs her that “if you do it again, I will get you.” Add a series of desperate emails from a female former student that hint at inappropriate behavior on Tár’s part, plus a new young cellist she clearly seems to be grooming, and we think we know what we’re in for: a tightly focused realist drama of an arrogant icon’s comeuppance and downfall, via social-media opprobrium and the cudgel of cancel culture. It’s going to be enjoyable, in the manner of Jack Nicholson’s demolition in A Few Good Men. We expect we may even see a courtroom.

But this is not quite what Field has in store for his overweening protagonist, or for us. The second half of Tár takes surprising, even jarring turns, especially once we learn that the desperate former student has committed suicide—and see Tár hurriedly deleting all her emails. Yes, Tár’s actions do catch up with her, including a video of her bullying the student in the Juilliard class, and serious professional ramifications do ensue. Yet Tár isn’t really about cancel culture. Cancel culture provides the spark, but what Field is interested in is the combustion: not Lydia Tár’s professional undoing, but her psychological unraveling. 

That unraveling begins with Field (who also wrote the script) titrating in small, strange impingements on Lydia’s reality—disturbing little sonic mysteries, appropriately enough. The intruding chime of a doorbell coming from somewhere uncertain. A strangled cry of anguish Tár hears while jogging in the woods. A loud ticking as she lies sleepless at 3 a.m., which turns out to be the metronome in her study. Who turned it on? A beeper that goes off in the middle of the night. Is it her fridge? And there are other enigmas. Who has anonymously left Lydia the gift of a Vita Sackville-West novel—and what is the honeycomb or maze-like pattern drawn on its title page?

Having established a texture of meticulous realism, Field then undermines it, importing gothic tropes that introduce an unexpected ominousness into his film. In one scene, Lydia enters her daughter’s room to find the same honeycomb pattern executed in Play-Doh and her daughter hiding behind diaphanous curtains, whispering. Viewers may be forgiven for thinking they have been beamed into The Omen. When Tár subsequently discovers the honeycomb pattern drawn on a note in her assistant’s apartment, then suffers a nightmare of being immolated on a bed in the middle of a lagoon, and then experiences a bizarre and disturbing encounter with a haggard neighbor, whose naked and desperately ill elderly mother has to be lifted onto her commode, the movie slides into nightmare. Ominous camera angles follow Tár through her flat; a surreal sequence in which she follows the cellist into an abandoned building leads to a scary encounter with a snarling, wolf-like dog.

These scenes of peril and fear pump sinister unreality into the film until the line between what’s actually happening and what might be happening only in Tár’s tortured imagination is all but effaced, culminating in her calamitous undoing at opening night of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Mahler concert. But is it really happening? Or are we seeing a dire revenge fantasy playing out in the conductor’s tormented mind? 

 

One can trace this sinister quality through the disparate materials and scenarios of Todd Field’s three films, to differing effect in each. Where the almost deranging gloom of In the Bedroom welled up from depths of grief and despair, Field’s next film, Little Children—in which a bored young housewife conducts an affair with an equally bored father she meets at their kids’ playground—is drenched in an ominousness that can’t be accounted for by its familiar suburban agenda of marital ennui. Watch the movie’s trailer and you might be forgiven for thinking that it is a horror film. It’s John Updike meets The Babadook.

Field is drawn to situations of latent dread, where a roiling disturbance lies beneath a still surface. In Tár, Field works out the surface/depth dichotomy in ways that burden both the balance and the pacing of the film. Tár is too long—an hour in, all we have is one interview, one class that goes south, one lunch meeting, and some basic establishing of characters—and its drama is lopsided. The conductor’s undoing doesn’t even begin, really, until almost two hours in, and then unrolls with frantic haste. Rumors erupt, there’s a social-media blowup—and before we know it, protestors are massing, Tár faces dismissal, her wife abandons her, her star cellist ruthlessly mocks her, and she is losing her mind.

The haste makes for uncertain storytelling and the sense of incompatible cinematic modes forcibly yoked together

The haste makes for uncertain storytelling and the sense of incompatible cinematic modes forcibly yoked together. We are jerked from the prosaic to the paranoid; a scene of Lydia at a legal deposition is followed by bad-dream shots of people silently turning away from her in a parking lot, or heads around a boardroom table turning in unison to stare at her. Suddenly, madness looms. When neighbors knock at the door of her Berlin flat to inform her that they are showing their next-door apartment to potential buyers and to ask her to refrain from playing the piano during the showing, Tár slams the door in their faces, then picks up an accordion and plays it with harsh Brechtian dissonance, lurching around her apartment while cackling, “Apartment to sell, apartment to sell!” 

Lost amid the surreal strangeness is a short sequence at her old family home in a drab working-class New York neighborhood, and a curt interaction with a man who is presumably her brother; the scene seems like a remnant from a narrative strand eliminated from the film. It is followed by the abrupt close of the movie, worlds away from Berlin and New York in the far reaches of Asia, where Tár—presumably banished to the outermost orbit of the classical-music cosmos—conducts the score for some sort of video-game cosplay before an audience dressed in elaborate animal costumes. And so what began as A Few Good Men before becoming The Omen and then veering into the surreal paranoia of Repulsion now ends with Requiem for a Heavyweight refracted through Eyes Wide Shut. Some movies persuade by raising more questions than they answer. Others merely baffle. Tár is a bit of a mess.

What isn’t at all a mess is Cate Blanchett’s performance. To the cascade of accolades currently pouring down on her I will simply add a dollop of awe at the versatility of her long career. Both the variety and the sheer amount of acting on Blanchett’s résumé make Lydia Tár look like an underachiever. Her stage work has reached from Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Chekhov to David Mamet. She got her first Oscar nomination for playing the young Queen Elizabeth in the eponymous 1998 film. Not to be typecast, she also played the elf leader Galadriel in all three Lord of the Rings blockbusters; starred opposite Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton in the 2001 crime comedy, Bandits; had the leading role in Kieślowski’s Heaven, playing a grieving woman driven to a desperate act of terrorism; channeled a tomboyish Katharine Hepburn in Scorsese’s The Aviator; and acted one of the six versions of Bob Dylan in the 2007 Todd Haynes novelty tribute film, I’m Not There.

The title of that last film might stand in for the basic mystery of Blanchett’s power as an actor. The critic Stephen Holden has praised her “mercurial fluidity,” and indeed Blanchett seems to be everyone and no one—a protean and unearthly quality captured perfectly by Jack Davison’s highly abstract photos of her in a recent New York Times Magazine cover article. When Meryl Streep performs—another actress famed for chameleon-like powers of sympathy—you somehow never forget that this is Streep performing. Blanchett is more of a mysterious dissolver. Her presence on the screen is so variable that in looking back over her credits you can be surprised: Oh, she was in that? Early in her career she often played callow, feckless lightweights. (Remember the maligned would-be girlfriend in The Talented Mr. Ripley, or the posh schoolteacher victim of Judi Dench’s sexual predation in Notes on a Scandal?) But as Blanchett has aged, her face has become more interesting, and she has grown into a capacity for a jagged intensity by turns commanding and disturbed.

One wonders if this quality is what tempts directors toward explorations of paranoia and madness. With a nod to Blanchett’s triumphant portrayal of Blanche DuBois in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013) cast her as a Manhattan socialite adrift and penniless after her corrupt hedge-fund-manager husband goes bankrupt and kills himself. The clash of arrogant superiority and sexual coquettishness with the humiliations of penury drew from Blanchett a mesmerizing performance that the film purveyed through closeups of her face, now defiantly serene, now furtively calculating, now harrowed and absent. Blanchett’s intensity pushed Blue Jasmine beyond the narcissistic anxiety that is Woody Allen’s lifelong go-to theme, toward something Allen has rarely touched: psychosis.

Blanchett drives Tár toward the same dark depths of torment. In the culminating throes of the film, we see the conductor sprawled on her couch, head in her hands and hyperventilating with despair, or watching an old video of her hero, Leonard Bernstein, as tears stream down her face—and we know we are watching, suitably enough, an egregia maestra of the art of acting.

Published in the December 2022 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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