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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson review: In Defense of "Tár"

Cate Blanchett plays a world-renowned conductor in the film <em>Tár.</em>
Courtesy of Focus Features
Courtesy of Focus Features
Cate Blanchett plays a world-renowned conductor in the film Tár

In Defense of Tár

DD: The life span of a film is comparatively short—6 months if it’s a star performer, six weeks if it’s got some backing, down to 6 days or 6 minutes if it’s star-crossed. Writer- director Todd Field’s Tár, for which Cate Blanchett might win her third Oscar as a fiery symphony conductor, got a standing ovation in Venice in September, was shown some love at Telluride and at the NY Film Fest, before going out into theaters in the US—where it has taken a beating by critics and audiences ever since. Our critic Harlan Jacobson is here as the film’s defense attorney.

HJ I don’t need the IMDB to know that Cate Blanchett is at the pinnacle of her profession as an actress playing Lydia Tár, at the top of her profession as a maestro, jetting between her home base conducting the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and teaching at Julliard, a woman who has vaulted to the top of the classical musical world. Taking control now of the New York Philharmonic, Lydia Tár is imperious, demanding, precise, with a metronome inside her mainframe.

She’s queer, an adoptive mom who jets around a matrix of adorations. But in one delicious piece of helicopter mom mischief defending her daughter, she makes it clear she knows her way around a public schoolyard. She’s partnered to the Berlin’s first chair violinist -- Nina Hoss as Sharon -- who back in their Berlin skyline apartment does meat, potatoes and tired sex that doesn’t stack up to Lydia’s lady dalliances across town, one of whom is not so easily forgotten. Tár is a world beater supported by an army of male funders, lesser musicians and company managers, plus Francesca, a quiet woman secretary hoping to be a conductor (Noémie Merlant) who sees all and buries all so that Tár can stride the earth in black pencil suits and stilettos with a rapier baton. Anyone fails along any metric, and Tár spits out her favorite insult: “Robot!” It is her clear warrior’s devotion to the art they all love – and their fear of her – that makes Lydia Tár head shark.

The cognoscenti have taken Fields to task for misweighting the importance of Mahler’s 5th, which Tár is preparing, or for later pairing it with Edward Elgar, saying the film’s musical sophistication is suspect from the get-go, when the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik opens the action playing himself as an unctuous on-air interviewer. You’d think a journalist might know what’s what, but for poor Gopnik, whom most of us shlugs in the real audience envy for his gig, Tár tolerantly decodes Conducting 101 and the secrets of the universe.

There are traps, however. Early on in the film, Tár eviscerates a black, male Julliard student in her masterclass. The kid, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), is upfront about being Bi, Black and gender fluid before going on to dismiss Johann Sebastian Bach as just another white, Euro-male misogynist who sired 20 children he ignored. And with that, the cultural zeitgeist cracks open. Tár retorts Max is just a social media victim, and depending on your age, you pick a side. This fight is both current and tiresome. It has coursed through all art for what seems like decades. Tár hands Max his balls as he stomps out of class. “What a bitch,” he says, routed. Her line, “The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity” has replaced “Don’t let the swinging door hit you on the way out.” The student -teacher mashup is captured on a cellphone, however, which long since Film Noir strode the earth and died, has become the new Gun in Act One that is sure to go off in Act Three.

New plot line. Olga, a 20-something cellist, enters the picture in a brilliantly plotted series of shots by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister and pieced together by editor Monika Willi that shows Tár madly subverting the process of blind audition, the cornerstone of tearing down the old male world of classical music even beyond the gender parity that Tár has mastered and which the NY Times reported only this week has finally been achieved plus one at the New York Phil. That’s not just lucky film publicity; it’s because Field built the film on the current cracks in the gestalt. However it came to first-time actress Sophie Kauer, otherwise a cellist, as Olga, the new girl in town, she let the hot animal out, way out. Her Olga is a Russian savage. She rips apart food with her hands and takes it to her teeth the way she rips apart the musical cello canon with the natural conviction of the jungle. She disappears down a slum cellar where Tár, clearly abandoning the one organizing principle of her life—control--unwisely follows her.

Tár is Todd Field’s third film, his debut film in 2001 was In the Bedroom, a chamber piece about loss settled on ordinary people in suburban Massachusetts and played by the extraordinary ensemble of Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei, Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. It was nominated for five Oscars. It’s been 16 years since he followed with Little Children, with Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly in suburbia, after which he went dry.

For Tár, the publicity lore is that Cate Blanchett learned to play the piano, learned to conduct an orchestra by channeling Leonard Bernstein, and learned German. All of which she uses on camera. That seems rather a lot, but she could’ve added flying in a wingsuit for that matter. Because the film consistently relishes the cultural cliff diving its lead character undertakes. Watching Blanchett play Lydia Tár is like standing in a mirror holding a mirror, seeing Blanchett, diva, as Lydia Tar, maestro, in a career performance. Her character has broken through the glass ceiling poked and probed in politics by Hillary and Nancy Pelosi. Musically, her character suggests Marin Alsop, the Koussevitzky prize winner and, like Tár, a Leonard Bernstein mentee, laureate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, and chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony. Tár however started in and plays in a bigger league than Alsop, detailed in depth upfront in the interview sequence. She’s an EGOT winning artist going from Cleveland to the Berlin Philharmonic of Herbert von Karajan to Lenny and Zubin’s NY Phil.

Field’s central character is both a god and a self-made peasant from Staten Island. The irony of Tár is she’s the Gen X avatar of slavers in the eyes of Gen Z. And so, she is undone not by the hand tools that carved trees into axe handles or cellos, but by unholy silicon memory chips. Tár the maestro might have walked into the NY Philharmonic board meeting waiting for her the way Faye Dunaway walked Joan Crawford into the Pepsi Boardroom in 1981’s Mommie Dearest. Dunaway’s Crawford drained the boys’ bottles and spat it back at them. Instead, Tár’s denouement plays out the way it must have seemed to James Levine, when the board at the Met decapitated him. Blanchett’s Tár realizes too late it’s a Shanghai hanging party that will banish her to the rice noodle circuit in Asia—a coda slammed by the film’s detractors for its implicit cultural insult. :57

As a narrative, Field’s film moves beyond first stage feminism stories of wanting to count (See Women Talking.) It is a later generation feminist story of comeuppance that as a white male he’s not even supposed to have the right to tell. Which speaks right to the irony of Lydia Tár. Yes, it’s about the hubris of forgetting, about coming undone by sexual weakness and personal arrogance. How fitting those things come for her, when it’s really something much larger — the world she conquered has disappeared before she’s ready.

Tár has long roots in film. It is a lineal descendant of Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 Der Blaue Engel/The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich’s Lola dangling a heel in a cabaret to undo Emil Janning’s Professor Rath and wreck the old world with the new one with the flick of an ash. Put a queer spin on it nearly 40 years later, and you can find Tár in 1973’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, another German milestone, by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had the cheek to tell the story of a dissolute lesbian fashion designer who turns her back on her S&M lover-factotum when she becomes fatally attracted to a vanilla young thing.

Even at 2 hours and 37 minutes, some critics say, Tár still fails in its duty to be passionate about music or life, which is not what the film is about. That’s another film, and, as it happens, it is passionate about music if doubtful about the life inside it. But this is the year of the 2-and-a-half-hour film, they’re everywhere. And Tárhad me on the edge of my seat for all of it, as if it was named War, not Tár. :34

And I’m HJ 

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.