A conductor exhibits a great degree of control over an orchestra, guiding and timing all movements. What may appear as a simple and superfluous job, unnecessary because each musician is capable of keeping their own time, is anything but, requiring a mastery of sound and meter. The unforgettable protagonist of Todd Field’s new film Tár makes that distinction early on, ensuring that anyone she speaks to is well aware of how much her work demands of her and how formidably she will respond and deliver in all facets of her life.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a renowned conductor currently in residence in Berlin who has worked with many of the great orchestras around the world. Always on the go, she teaches students at Juilliard in New York City, where she doesn’t hesitate to belittle an aspiring artist and hack apart his notions that a person’s identity should play any part in the study or veneration of their work. As she prepares for a major performance, her carefully-choreographed life begins to spiral out of control, with accusations of misconduct surfacing from former students and her focus entirely distracted by a promising young cellist, Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer).
Tár is the first film from writer-director Todd Field, who made his two previous features, In the Bedroom and Little Children, in 2001 and 2006, respectively. This also represents Field’s first time not adapting someone else’s work, though Tár feels so fleshed-out and fully-realized that many audiences will likely rush to search following the end credits for documentation on whether she is in fact a real person. While surely inspired by so many with almost unchecked power who choose to abuse it, she is fictional, but she feels so vividly alive thanks to Field’s rich writing.
It’s Blanchett’s performance, of course, that truly drives and makes the film. The two-time Oscar winner has played queens, actresses, musicians, and so much more, and it’s magnificent to see how easily and smoothly she slips into this role. Tár is first introduced as she is being interviewed, and watching the subtle shifts in her facial expression as her impressive resume is touted and her accomplishments are celebrated provides a great window into her mindset, which manifests in dramatic and explosive ways as she loses her fiercely-held grip on her orchestra and on her curated and high-powered life.
Blanchett has great support in the cast from the women around her. German actress Nina Hoss portrays Sharon Goodnow, Tár’s wife and a key member of her orchestra, who sees how she behaves in front of a group and must confront the often irritable and unpredictable egotist when she comes home and has lost her audience. Both Hoss and Noémie Merlant, who plays Francesca, Tár’s devoted assistant, convey the way in which they put up with regular beratement from someone who fails to see that the people closest to her are the ones propping her up, and her talent will only take her so far. Kauer, a trained cellist, also makes a noteworthy debut as someone with equally brazen talent just as uninterested in pleasing others but far less attuned at how to hide her disdain for that process.
There is an electric energy in Tár that pulsates through it, following its central character as she begins her precipitous fall from grace. The film clocks in at a lengthy two hours and thirty-seven minutes, which sometimes feels trying but ultimately proves rewarding. Each additional scene serves a purpose, to more fully capture and harness what it is that drives Tár to excel and how that need to be the best – and make others feel inferior – can’t be turned off. Blanchett is commanding and carries the film with her, bringing audiences along on an operatic and impactful musical and emotional journey.
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After screening at the New York Film Festival in the Main Slate, Till will be released in select theaters on Friday, October 7th.