[This review contains spoilers.]
Cate Blanchett stars as a fictional celebrated conductor whose life begins to unravel after an alleged affair with a music student comes to light. Her character, Lydia Tár, breaks the glass ceiling in the rarified world of classical music. Her accomplishments — including an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy — are all the more newsworthy because she is a woman and a lesbian, boldly going where few (if any) women or lesbians have gone before. But her outsider identity doesn’t seem to preclude her from committing the same transgressions and exhibiting the same character flaws of so many straight, white men before her.
Early in the film, Tár dresses down a nervous young music student — a self-described pangender BIPOC (black, indigenous, or person of color) — who doesn’t want to learn from the music of a cisgender white misogynist like Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a terrific criticism of rigid political-correctness that endears her to the audience… or at least to me.
But the film also swings the other way. After her indiscretions derail her illustrious composer/conductor career in Berlin, Tár is forced to find more low-brow work conducting a Southeast Asian orchestra that performs video game scores before an audience dressed in cosplay uniforms. Prior to her first performance at the new venue, she goes to a massage parlor. When she’s asked to choose her preferred masseuse, she turns to see a number of Asian women kneeling and bowing inside a giant glass bowl window. Each woman has a number on her chest, and Tár is asked to pick a number. She throws up instead.
I love that writer/director Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) is tackling the thorny issues of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘identity politics’ with this film. These are fairly new concepts that we have not yet wrapped our heads around. Many artists are even afraid to bring up these subjects. Tár suggests women are allowed to reach the same highs as men, but also the same lows. That perhaps it’s position, not identity, that predisposes us to impropriety. It’s a beautifully shot and edited film, anchored by a powerhouse Blanchett performance, with treasured moments of surreal suspense and sublimely dark humor.
The first act feels stuffy and off-putting as it dives deep into the hoity-toity music scene, but I think it’s very much supposed to make us feel that way. There’s a joke within the first few minutes at the expense of comedy legend Mel Brooks (a real-life Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy-winner). That joke is a barometer. If you really think it’s funny, you may see Tár as a tragedy about a woman who gets what she deserves. And if so, that’s great — it certainly works as a tragedy. But If you don’t think the joke is quite so funny, you might find the ending less of a tragedy, and Blanchett’s character one worthy of hopeful redemption.
I think Tár is a Rorschach test, ripe for conversation. Is Tár cancelled? Does she deserve to be? Are her crimes greater than her accomplishments? Can and should we separate the art from the artist? Sheets leaves enough open variables to keep us wondering and, hopefully, carry on this important conversation.
With Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Adam Gopnik, and Julian Glover.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Blanchett), Cinematography, Film Editing