Look, I like a conversation about the value of Mozart over Bach as much as the next guy – and let me tell you, Todd Field’s Tár has that in spades – but his latest music-themed venture failed to hit the mark. Lasting at least 40 minutes longer than it needed to, it seems symbolized by its drab Berlin setting; grey, damp, and with a little too much pretension.
Tár tells the tale of fictional orchestral conductor Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett. You’ll be glad to know Blanchett isn’t attempting a German accent throughout; the US-born protagonist is considered one of the greatest living composers. She’s also the first female director of a major German orchestra, an intense job she’s attempting to juggle with family life, which includes her wife, played by Nina Hoss, and their daughter.
At the same time, allegations made by one of her former students threaten to upend her legacy completely. Basically, imagine JK Simmons’ character from Whiplash but with a lot less shouting and a little more seediness.
I’m certainly not saying I didn’t enjoy any of Tár, which focuses on the themes of music, morality, and power. It’s captivating in small doses, including a scene in which Tár argues with one of her students (she’s also a lecturer) about the need to separate Bach’s work from his failings as a man. In the emotionally-charged sequence, Tár publicly humiliates the young student, claiming he’s let identity politics turn him into a “robot.”
It also has to be said that Blanchett puts on a stellar performance, so much so that it actually overshadows the film itself and its lukewarm plot. She portrays Tár in just the right way, a strong LGBTQ+ woman who dominates all those around her. Meanwhile, just underneath the surface is a person corrupted by power, who will use all the tools at her disposal to get what she wants, be it in her career or sexually.
Playing Tár’s wife and concertmaster, Hoss is also exceptional as a loving figure who has to knowingly accept her partner’s faults. As Tár publicly uses her power to further the career of a beautiful young Cellist, played by Sophie Kauer, Hoss’ subtle glances instantly express that she is used to her wife’s conceited ways and at least partly aware that she is not being faithful to their marriage.
The acting from Blanchett and others drags the film along, which would have otherwise struggled to maintain any of my interest. While it seems that the director wants the plot to build to a crescendo as Tár’s veneer gradually fades, it never really feels that way. Sure, she is clearly collapsing in on herself, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact that Field seems to intend, even as Tár’s mental turmoil turns into physical aggression.
The success or failure of Tár as a film can be measured in its accolades, which so far follow a similar pattern. While Blanchett has won Best Actress at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards, the film itself has only secured silverware for its soundtrack. Evidently, although Field wanted to compose a masterpiece in Tár, all he really did was serve up an average symphony for the real maestro to breathe life into.