When cinema can seek to challenge the collective brevity of both sight and sound, it equally makes deliberate, nearly abrasive brush strokes with the deeper recesses of one’s mind. A finite analogy to refine into words, but an apt one to mirror the exact toxicity melded in writer/director Todd Field’s latest original character of study. His third feature, TÁR, may be nothing short of a glorified epic of these two justifiable senses, rattled to no end by what’s floating around. Simple sounds (a ghastly scream, the melodic simplicity of a doorbell, the haunting rhythm in a metronome) or revelatory bombshells (compounding the miasma of cancel culture) are far from exempt in the title character’s thoughts, a titan facing the threat of a downturn.
And she belongs in a field most film audiences likely wouldn’t consider as fair game in a feature setting. At least, not since Amadeus. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has staked her claim as a modern antithesis to the misogyny of 19th century Germanic musicians, rewriting the rulebook as a composer and conductor, trained in the disciplines once built by Bernstein. With decades under her belt as a piano virtuoso, globetrotting musicologist, best-selling author, influencer and even EGOT conqueror, she feels immortal, untouchable. As she prepares to complete a cycle of Mahler symphonies put to record and publish her latest book, however, the noise and clutter in her life, from all sources, is impossible to escape from.
Field can only temporarily deviate from the most obvious noises, or distractions, opening rather quiet, and unconventional – a lengthy credits sequences covering all bases save for cast and musicians further illustrates this idea from the top, whose talent and efforts either defines or defies convention. Half an hour passes where noise is not verbose. Call it more common, familiar. The loudest thing one hears is applause, jovial and polite. The type promoting a hesitant approval, unaware of the icon’s oft-malignant workmanship. Only further on, around the midway mark, do events take greater motion beyond its dripping in mild atmospherics. The pace of Monika Willi’s (Happy End) editing works so finitely in step with this adherent disjoint well in consideration.
Splitting time between New York and Berlin (her home base, where the recording will occur), Lydia rarely has a moment to wind down. Less so for her loyal (if not also dour) assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who quietly follows behind, keeping her mind on task and focus, gaining little in return. The conductor keeps many moving chess pieces in active play as the recording date looms – auditioning soloists, proofing that book, testing students’ patience at Julliard , rotating older players, trading secrets with legal counsel Elliot (a coy Mark Strong), and batting off the tension of a deposition involving a former chair.
Such is the mind of a workaholic genius, propelled by her pursuits, blinded by how her need for perfection lessens her likeability, those complaints deafened by her nascent problem solving. Not everyone can tolerate Lydia’s slowly decaying orbit, a deceptive claw to zoom past. She’s not an evil soul, merely a difficult one to comprehend. And Blanchett dives into the character with arms flailing and eyebrows furrowed. Her level of commitment bears no equal, learning how to play piano and wield a baton with equal proficiency. Anyone who challenges her caustic tactics might be considerable white noise. And any other actress would wind up lost in that particular corner to also mediate human kindness or respect. Daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) perhaps receives the most of that in Lydia’s heart, the only relationship in her life considered “non-transactional.” Not even her wife and concertmaster Sharon (a cold-blooded Nina Hoss) can match that closeness, for how much the two adore each other at the end of a long day, sipping wine and trading stories.
That’s perhaps the exact mood Field is aiming for, well distanced from his reclusive past. Taking a lengthy break (16 years since Little Children) in between projects often makes one reminiscent of better times. TÁR is, without hyperbole, a manifestation of that fondness, balancing the conversational with the foreboding. Fireside chats with faint glimmers of a sobering reality, which its figurehead tries to suppress. Email chains, online news articles, text message strings and even real-time Wiki editing do more than enough to visually capture how escaping the truth doesn’t last long. And how arrogance and power do not mix well while dodging apparent backlash.
When the auditory hallucinations and mild fever dreams don’t effectively turn a corner for Lydia’s deconstructing identity, let it be the sense of reality crashing down. Though that doesn’t mean Field’s gripping sense of style suffers any sort of blind stagnation. Quite the opposite, playing the coil of tension and time deferral to his advantage. We did not need to spend over two and a half hours investigating the lead character’s psyche. The stretch of time is still no less appreciated, if only to leave no stones behind, invite the viewer into this indisposed chaos. Stress them out, and then tickle the funny bone. Often in the same shot, as Field hones in on that raw emotion. More so, when a sequence requires only a single shot, flowing with Lydia’s assertive footsteps.
It’s all unchecked fervor, thriving well in an arena where questions spring like arrows on a dartboard. And where overall aesthetics often outpace the obliviousness of Lydia’s mind, adding another layer of distraction while questioning everything in her path. Whether it absolves her overbearing perfectionism remains left for debate, a welcome exchange in Field’s hands as he strives to tickle the senses. Through Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Joker) elusive underscore, Stephen Griffith’s (Pixie) petrifying usage of sound, and Florian Hoffmeister’s (Antlers) sharpness with the camera do not miss this mark, piercing the bullseye like it were the only object available. Anything else is merely invisible, as both lens and microphone act as one to pinpoint the very moment of personal tumult, recklessness taking the shape of dense bricks on one’s head.
Field takes this fictional dive into the culture of western classical music headfirst without a moment’s pause. And while TÁR doesn’t proceed on those goals with any hard deliberation, its slow potboiler mindset is not at all wasted. Nor is Blanchett, landing a precise display of professional alienation, defensive, fragile, oddly resilient as the latter half illustrates. Could this adventure into self-destruction have benefitted from Field reeling his focus further inward, possibly shortened by half an hour? Clearly, yes. Much of Lydia’s journey grows rather belabored, but never boring, curious in wondering where the final card will fall. TÁR won’t be the tidiest character-based drama this year, but it wages a heavy fist claiming to be the most sensory, or patient, or calamitous. Any one of those three will apply, now and perhaps in a few years. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
TÁR opens in Seattle (Meridian, Thornton Place) and Bellevue (Lincoln Square) October 21, wide expansion October 28; rated R for some language and brief nudity; 155 minutes.