TÁR Review: A Star Is Torn As Cate Blanchett's Conductor Falls Tragically From Grace [Venice]

"Perhaps the chief requirement of [the conductor] is that he be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience," said famed conductor Leonard Bernstein. "All his efforts, however strenuous or glamorous, be made in the service of the composer's meaning — the music itself, which, after all, is the whole reason for the conductor's existence."

Bernstein serves as something of a guiding light to the titular character of writer/director Todd Field's "TÁR" — a title so serious it requires special instructions to ensure capitalization and with an acute Á. Cate Blanchett's Lydia Tár is a contemporary composer-conductor and protégé of Bernstein's who seeks to occupy a similar place in the cultural firmament. She's an EGOT polymath on the verge of completing a famed cycle of Gustav Mahler's symphonies and writing a book extolling her own brilliance. It's no wonder Field claims the film simply would not have been made if Blanchett turned it down — there's simply no one else who could pull off making genius look so effortless. She confidently conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in German, a language she does not speak.

But Bernstein is as much illumination as obfuscation to Tár's quest for glory and recognition. If he is the sun, she is Icarus getting too close for comfort thanks to overconfidence in her invincibility. Tár's intimate knowledge of her mentor's feats and foibles looms over her own career, presenting a legacy she can amplify but not avoid. She exalts herself above the craft and learns the cost of putting the cockiness of the composer ahead of the humility of the conductor. The slow-burning "TÁR" tracks the dramatic changes of fortune in her professional prospects, unfurling with the gravity of ancient tragedy.

Pride comes before her fall

When the film introduces the audience to Lydia Tár, it's by way of a lengthy list of accolades and accomplishments ahead of a New Yorker live talk. The reputation precedes her long before a steely Blanchett can even utter a word. When she does speak, it's with an affect of intelligence so ingrained it appears authentic. Tár is the chief architect of her own mythology, a legend she burnishes with grandiloquent speechifying from a manufactured ivory tower of artistic insight.

Unlike her mentor Bernstein, Tár feels no pressure to pay the favor of her success forward. After trailblazing women cleared the way for the female conductor to enjoy her stature, Tár seems hell-bent on slamming that passage shut behind her. She exhibits no sympathy for other women looking to make headway in an industry still top-heavy with men, even going so far as to change her score during a blind audition when she can identify a performer's gender by the clacking of her heels.

It's not that Tár does not understand the role identity has played in her conducting career. As a self-proclaimed "U-Haul lesbian," she commiserates with her romantic partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) about how brutal their coming out was in the German press. Blanchett projects indomitable strength from Tár, yet the occasional slippage in her performance of prodigiousness belies the brittleness of her character. Tár's ability to withstand the attacks ensconces her belief in the irrefutable supremacy of her musical talent and emboldens her to act as if she has artistic impunity.

A grenade into cancel culture debates

Though "TÁR" locates many classical resonances with its tragic downfall, Field's story also speaks powerfully to the contemporary. With its pointed incorporation of social media virality as well as its nuanced understanding of contentious identity politics, the film mires Tár's quest for recognition in the ethical quicksand of her era. Field is unafraid to ruffle feathers with his portrayals of social phenomena like cancel culture and the #MeToo movement, taking no ideological position unquestionably. It's not so much a bomb drop as the release of a hand grenade, slowly releasing its vapors until they consume the characters entirely.

But beyond the initial provocation, it's not clear what Field has to say that's particularly novel about the present moment in debating the relationship between brilliant art and toxic artists. The film is mercifully not a manifesto, but it's occasionally fumbling for something profound to say about what Field shows. "TÁR" often resorts to lazy shorthand in conveying the details of the protagonist's dilemmas. Field is quick to criticize but hesitant to introduce — or even hint at — replacement values for dominant ideologies.

While it can sometimes get tangled in the weeds of easy cultural signifiers for highbrow and lowbrow art, that's of little concern for a film shooting for the stars thematically and aesthetically. Field channels a Kubrickian sense of unease as he charts the existential unmaking of Tár as her ambition runs astray. Tár's streak of vindictiveness and barely concealed preferential treatment proves her undoing. The film resists simple reduction into any one thing — psychological thriller, character study, melodrama — into a tonal blend of orchestral might. Field builds sparsely and methodically toward the character's cataclysmic crescendo.

A Cate Blanchett masterclass

The film's controlled burn would not ignite, of course, without the commitment and competency of star Cate Blanchett. She's at her most tightly coiled at the start of "TÁR," a paragon of unflappable and unmovable excellence. To watch Blanchett unravel over the course of "TÁR" is akin to watching a classical Greek statue shatter. While occasionally frustrating to watch the film spin its wheels into repetitive or monotonous territory, the magnetic pull of simply watching Blanchett hold court on-screen is undeniable.

It certainly helps to have someone at the top of their craft portraying a character supposedly at the height of their own. Blanchett understands not just the practice of art but its very philosophical core. Her deep passion courses through the film's very veins. If any element of the film can stand the test of time, it's her colossal performance that serves as an oblique exploration of her relationship to character and craft.

"Any great work of art ... revives and readapts time and space," Leonard Bernstein posited. Tár would likely agree given her stated estimation of the conductor's role as "sculpting art through time," not merely serving as a metronome. Bernstein continued to provide a scale of success for such art: "the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air." By those metrics, what Field and Blanchett conjure through "TÁR" passes muster — even if a few languorous interludes make it lose a bit of luster.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10