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" I may be on the devil’s hit list, but I’m on Jesus’ mailing list. "
— Robert Duvall, The Apostle

MRQE Top Critic

Ballroom

An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

Trividic et al haunt the Ballroom

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“You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.”
— Lydia Tár

Tár is a creative magnum opus that centers around Cate Blanchett’s mind-blowing performance.

Kavanah

Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) and the joy of music
Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) and the joy of music

World-building is a term typically reserved for science-fiction and fantasy movies; occasionally a superhero movie manages the visionary feat as well. But here, in this drama about a symphony conductor, the creative efforts of star Cate Blanchett and writer/director Todd Field thoroughly qualify as world-building.

The level of detail is staggering.

It’s in the dialogue as Lydia Tár (Blanchett) digs deep into what it means to be a conductor during media interviews and while lecturing students. As staged by Field and performed by Blanchett, those scenes feel so real, they play more like a documentary than a typical drama.

It’s in the settings. Walls are adorned with artsy black-and-white photos of Lydia, stylishly framed. Other items, such as books and magazines — items typically cast aside as mere props or set dressing — help blur the line between fact and fiction. Footage of Leonard Bernstein energetically speaking about the emotional power of music — “Don’t you feel triumphant?” — sits side-by-side with Lydia’s equally passionate but less joyous worldview.

It’s in Cate Blanchett. She digs deep into her role, transcending the boundaries of acting. It’s a stunning revelation to see her credited with conducting various symphonic performances as well as playing the piano. It’s a truly virtuoso performance that — in October 2022 — seems destined for an Oscar in March 2023.

Tár on Tár

But it’s also in the timely storyline.

Lydia Tár has ascended to the pinnacle of her field as a composer and conductor in Berlin and New York — and she is an absolute diva. Opinionated and — rather refreshingly — she’s not afraid to offend. She’s a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” and she grimaces at some of the trappings of a woke world. Okay. So, Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children. Does that mean the German’s masterful musical accomplishments can’t be appreciated by a contemporary gay man studying music in New York? Lydia verbally pummels her students, which should be taken as an aggressive way to get their young and easily influenced minds to look past themselves and see the bigger picture.

“Don’t be so eager to be offended,” she demands. And don’t let social media be the arbiter of your soul.

Instead of allowing that persona to continue — a sort of Steve Jobs for the music set — Lydia’s words will return to haunt her.

Rat on Rat

Blanchett conducts as Lydia
Blanchett conducts as Lydia

Todd Field is not a household name with the same directorial recognition of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan. This is, after all, only Field’s third feature film, following In the Bedroom (2001, Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) and Little Children (2006, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly).

With Tár, Field is also the sole screenwriter, which demonstrates an intense affinity for the material. Here, he busts traditional filmmaking conventions, starting with the first frames, which transition from footage of an exhausted, passed out Lydia being captured on a smartphone to lengthy opening credits that center on key creative aspects of the movie — with the notable exception of the cast — set against a black screen and mysterious audio that perhaps capture some of Lydia’s ethnographic work in the Amazon. That is an interesting story thread that one waits to hear more about at some point in the movie, but, in retrospect, this treatment is a clever way to establish a pattern for Lydia’s behavior.

And that’s where Tár becomes more and more fascinating; it’s the kind of movie that lingers in the mind as so very few movies do these days. It is an intense, deep and detailed character study that at its own pace and in its own style manages to ratchet up the tension over the course of an initially intimidating 158 minutes.

Monster Hunters

Individualism is crucial to creativity and Lydia has both in spades.

She is her own world builder, which is revealed in such a restrained fashion, Field and Blanchett let the punch of Lydia’s reality linger in the air as a lifestyle and an image are shattered.

Through it all are tantalizing notions and allusions to scandals missed. Jerry Goldsmith, Marlon Brando and Ludwig van Beethoven factor into bits of dialogue that question ethics through the centuries.

And that dovetails with Lydia’s dark side. Infidelity. Abuse of power. Links to a student’s suicide. All the media manipulation and image management that goes with such crises. This thematic thread is also grounded in reality, with high-profile musical legends such as James Levine and Placido Domingo having been the subjects of scandalous stories involving abusive conduct. In Lydia’s case, it all leads to a new project — perhaps harking back to her work in the Amazon — that takes her to Asia and final frames that are full of symbolism and multiple interpretations.

While the story within Tár targets the power of music, Tár as a theatrical experience reinforces the power of film.