Right before the pandemic hit, I graduated college with a B.M. in music education, and while my job fully utilizes the education part, my opportunities to use the music portion have been limited. I always get really excited when films about the artform of music are on the horizon because I can put my knowledge to good use when analyzing and appreciating the film in question. Tár (2022) is one such film that I was completely enamored with the moment I saw the trailer, and the movie itself fulfilled and exceeded every expectation I had for it. A cold and detached look into the life of a conductor whose career is falling apart, Todd Field and Cate Blanchett have given audiences an artfully crafted film certain to impress the awards circuit.
Within the international stage of Western classical music, fictional Lydia Tár is widely known as one of the most lauded and acclaimed composer-conductors of all time and as the first female conductor of a major German orchestra. Just before the release of her new novel and her orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, her misuse of power and position comes to the forefront, and her private and professional lives crumble for all eyes to see.
Tár is a film that was designed to be an awards vehicle for its cast. Cate Blanchett is a powerhouse regardless of whatever film she is in, but her role as Lydia Tár was perfect for her. Blanchett delivers a phenomenal, nuanced and cold performance that carries this two and a half hour character study of musical elitism. Much like a great concerto, Blanchett’s solo is nothing without the ensemble accompanying her. The film’s auxiliary cast fantastically gives the realm of high-brow orchestras a sense of heaviness and strife. In particular, Noémie Merlant and Nina Hoss both bring very unique chemistry with Blanchett and develop tense and captivating scenes that keep you invested throughout the long runtime.
The greatness of the performances is built on the back of the fantastic script by Todd Field. Throughout the movie, the writing combines nuance with wit and is peppered with musical jargon. The integration of music history into the dialogue not only adds verisimilitude to the world this is set in, but it also sets up the entire thematic struggle of Blanchett’s character. Near the beginning of the film (in a clip that has made its way onto social media), Blanchett’s character eviscerates a college student for the way he appreciates, creates, and consumes music. Her description of how to “correctly” approach music and interact with its composer is the single most important scene in the film as it both shows her as she publicly presents herself and it gives the audience a brief glimpse at what she is afraid of her legacy becoming should her dark secrets get out. From this brilliantly directed and acted scene, all character decisions and turns of the story find meaningful importance and weight.
While the performances and script in Tár are spellbinding, this film is very alienating. At its laborious runtime of two and a half hours, audiences not steeped in music history are going to feel lost in its dialogue and feel like they need multiple breaks in order to power through it. While I found the music history to be brilliantly interwoven within the film’s script, I did find that what I found enjoyable and unique to quickly become snobbish. The feeling of musical elitism was obviously intentional as you look at the Tár character and her many great and horrible characteristics. In creating the sense of elitism to skewer the Tár character, however, director Todd Field is inadvertently insulting entire groups of musicians and appreciators of what the film regards as “lesser music”. So, while the characters and performances that bring them to life are wonderful to watch, I also have to say that parts of the film felt like it was attacking the subjectivity of music appreciation.
Tár is a movie that is brilliantly written, played, and directed. While it acts as a surefire awards vehicle for Blanchett (I would throw Nina Hoss in that conversation as well), its long runtime and sense of elitism will definitely turn off the general movie going audience. If you are able to look past the film’s stance on the hierarchy of musical excellence and the “rules” for music appreciation, you will be throttled by the acting prowess on display. I also think that if you have a well-versed knowledge of music history, you will find a much deeper appreciation of this film.
Tár (2022) is rated R for some language and brief nudity.