Tár – Dir: Todd Field (13th Floor Film Review)

Tár is a psychological drama film by Todd Field that offers a laborious examination of power, control, and the spiraling effects of losing both when acquired through success in the spotlight of a modern, critical society.

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong

Tár follows Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a highly successful composer and conductor who finds her professional and personal life collapsing as she loses control of everything and everyone around her.

The film’s narrative begins during an interview at The New Yorker Festival where, after the interviewer provides an exhaustive list of her previous accomplishments, Tár promotes several new projects including an upcoming live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (the final recording of the nine symphonies) and a new book, Tár on Tár.

We then follow Tár as she navigates a lunch with Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), an amateur conductor and co-founder of Lydia’s foundation to support female conductors, a masterclass at Juilliard School which culminates in a heated debate about the separation of art and artist, and her return to Berlin, where Tár lives with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic) while serving as the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Interwoven through this professional narrative is a breadcrumb trail that exposes Tár’s fractious present and past with her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), and a former member of Tár’s conducting fellowship, Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), whose correspondence and behaviour to both Tár and Francesca becomes increasingly obsessive and psychotic.

The intense pressure surrounding her upcoming live recording builds to an unbearable level of personal scrutiny as Tár begins to lose control of herself and everything she has built, forcing her into a state of self-examination and reflection that she refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for while under the scrutiny of the public social-media spotlight.

Tár is a strange film with an abundance of visceral themes to dissect, which is little surprise from critically renowned director, Todd Field, whose previous feature films In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006) have received countless awards, nominations, and praise from the film community.

It’s a beautiful, elegant, and exquisitely framed film, where the genius of cinematography is on display in every frame throughout its 158-minute runtime, contrasting each location and its aesthetic influence and effect on the viewer and the film’s characters with stunning precision.

The orchestral scenes are magnificent if scattered throughout, and the more direct commentary on socio-political themes in modern society is interspersed with grim depictions of relationships and connection with others and ourselves, allowing the audience to individually analyse and interpret the film according to their own lens for life.

Tár is a film that offers very little to the audience in the way of guidance, instead showing the authentic amoral grey area of humanity and existence without a mapped-out narrative and situational punctuation to inform the audience of how they should think, feel, and respond to what they are absorbing on screen.

It’s in this level of ambiguity that the film both succeeds and fails, allowing for endless, contrasting praise and criticism depending entirely on the subjective approach taken by each member of the audience. Many will criticise what others will praise and, when viewed objectively as a piece of art and narrative storytelling, ultimately reveals the hollow lack of authenticity on display throughout.

Tár as a character is exactly that, a character within a character where very little is genuine or authentic to the point that they become a tangled web of contradictions and self-loathing. There’s some obvious and less obvious symbolism to depict this (a perpetual sense of hyper-cleanliness that acts as a metaphor for a constant and inescapable tainted inner soul, contrasted with a detached disrespect shown to anyone and anything that is lured in by the immense gravity of genius and critical acclaim that surrounds her), but much of this feels extremely base-level in terms of character depth.

Tár is the centre of her own universe, its creator and its ruler, where the past serves only as a first draft intended for her to interpret and finish, and the future a well-crafted and manipulated plan held up by experience in dominating and controlling the present. But Tár as a character is equally hollow and limited; everything feels manufactured and inauthentic, as though we’re witnessing a sociopath who simply gets bored with the reality of the position she finds herself in.

Tár talks about the greatness of famous composers while using her feet to discard vinyl records beneath her with a detached inequality, berates a student for their rigidity toward gender and musical appreciation while using these very stereotypes to excuse and add exciting intrigue to an act of manic stupidity, and projects every inner feeling of self-loathing repetitively onto the society around her.

She admonishes social media while clearly desperate for validation through it, refers to other people as robots while reciting pseudo-intellectual nonsense that has no attachment to her actual sense of character, and seems incapable of self-reflection and responsibility while demanding the most absolute subservience from those around her.

All of this feels remarkably obvious, but to look deeper simply peels away another ugly layer of the world we’re shown; everyone pretending they aren’t the protagonist in their own story, simulating support for others without any attachment to the art they are creating, and everyone in the same, desperately sad pursuit of power and status.

The ending of the film implies that Tár has returned to her roots, and rediscovered what initially sparked that desire and love of music in her; to feel the music. But Tár as a character seems incapable of this, incapable of any sort of connection to the deeper parts of human experience that won’t serve her own desperate need for success and validation.

While the final scenes of the film may indicate that Tár has finally removed herself from the pursuit of personal success, focussing on an audience that is there for the music alone and finding comfort in the simplicity of that achievement, the previous two-plus hours give nothing to indicate this as the truth.

Instead, it feels like Tár just lost at her own game, discovered the limitations to her own ability to manipulate and control, and would never have made the conscious choice to reflect on who she was unless she had lost everything in the process.

Even when removed entirely from her previous situation while remaining relatively unscathed, this seems to be an inconvenience she is incapable of drawing joy from, instead closing herself off from this potential through noise-cancelling headphones, escaping into an inner world of her own imagination once more.

Yet, it feels overly simplistic to just define this film as a story about how we lose ourselves and our passion for authentic living when we make ourselves the work of art instead of simply the conduit for its unique interpretation and expression.

In short, Tár is a film about someone who we never meet, about aspirations that were never authentic, about greatness and talent that we’re never shown, and the immense collateral damage caused by anyone willing to sacrifice their own personal sense of self and integrity for validation and worth that they cannot find the courage to give themselves.

It’s a film that, even outside the narrative, contradicts itself; stressing the importance of the art and not the individual while subjecting the audience to full opening credits that ensure each member of the cast and crew is seen for their contribution before the film even truly begins.

As a result, we’re left with a film as contradictory, shallow, and artificial as its central character, one that offers visual beauty and immense precision and style in the aesthetics of filmmaking, and a vapid, exhausting expression of storytelling that begs the audience to give it the depth it lacks the bravery to dive into and confront within itself.

Oxford Lamoureaux