Sunday, January 15, 2023

Tár – a conductor who sets time but loses her grip of what little she has left (QFT and Omniplex)

Tár depicts a critically acclaimed musician, composer and conductor who is at the pinnacle of her career, about to complete her orchestra’s cycle of Mahler symphony recordings. Her podium, front and centre of the players, is a pulpit of power. But power can be abused, and the celebrated conductor appears to have a long history of bad behaviour that could threaten her starry status. As someone who normally controls time, Lydia Tár risks losing her grip on what little she has left in a film whose architecture is as brutal as its protagonist.

While trombone-playing screenwriter and director Todd Field has created an authentic musical psychodrama, it’s Cate Blanchett who brings the story to life. Her performance as Tár is outstanding, creating a flawed yet compelling character that makes the 158-minute runtime fly.

“They can’t all conduct honey, it’s not a democracy.”

In front of an orchestra, she’s masterful and athletic in her virtuoso movement. Behind the scenes, she plays politics like a veteran. At home, her OCD is more pronounced, and her relationships strained. Tár’s attitude to wielding power is cemented in a scene where she decides the only course of action is to bully a school child in order to protect her partner’s daughter. All that on top of Blanchett learning to conduct, playing piano, singing and a spot of road rage.

Field creates an overture for the film, showing the credits at the start: he says it was “to recalibrate the viewer’s expectations about hierarchy”. It’s not the only unusual or disorientating decision about the structure of the film. A long sit-down interview with Tár early on in the film helps the audience to understand the conductor’s mindset. Later, a one-take musical masterclass brilliantly examines cancel culture, Tár parrying with a somewhat woke student who sticks to his guns while the conductor’s sharp tongue lays into his arguments and idealism.

Another standout performance comes from German cellist Sophie Kauer in her acting debut. She plays Olga Metkina, a gifted new entrant to the orchestra upon whom Tár can’t help but bestows much favour. Yet flirty Metkina is not captured by the besotted conductor’s web and this reversal of power is a pivot point in the movie.

The final, somewhat abrupt, ten minutes of the film could perhaps usefully be repeated at the end for audiences to pick up all of Field’s references and conclusions. Look out for the familiar orchestral arrangement of the masseuses. Ponder the degrading job with a youth orchestra playing a video game score (Monster Hunter, apparently). Perhaps abusers never truly stop if there is someone, somewhere else in the world that will welcome a westerner with a ruined reputation and give them the adoration they crave, even if the work is humiliating and there’s a chance they will continue to harm those around them.

The orchestra’s music is uplifting. The conductor’s downfall is deserved, though realistically incomplete.  Blanchett’s performance is captivating. The ethics are at first obvious, but scrape away the surface and Field has created a glorious maelstrom of power-plays and ambiguities.

Tár is playing at Queen’s Film Theatre and some Omniplex cinemas. Go with a friend, and reserve time to sit over coffee afterwards to dissect what you’ve just witnessed on screen.

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