Friday, February 9, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Tàr (2022)

Welcome to yet another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Backtracking a bit to last year's field and one of the three films I missed at that time, today it's the psychological drama Tàr, starring Cate Blanchett in yet another Oscar-nominated masterclass.  Directed by Todd Field - shockingly only his third feature as a filmmaker - Tàr is a character study about an acclaimed orchestra conductor whose life begins to come apart at the seams amid accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.  As public opinion turns against Lydia Tàr, her mental/emotional state spins out of control and she alienates everyone in her circle.  

Despite being centered around a fictional character, this film plays very much like a biopic, namedropping several real-life figures (Lydia was mentored by Leonard Bernstein) and structuring the narrative as an episodic series of events.  The first act is elegantly written, dumping lots of exposition about Lydia - her accomplishments, her views on music - in the form of an interview with Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker.  We learn that she's set to record an album performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony in Berlin, where most of the film ends up taking place.  
Shortly after the opening we're treated to maybe the best sequence in the film, where Lydia guest-teaches a conducting class at Juilliard and gets into a heated debate with a student about whether Bach's music should be celebrated given his personal indiscretions.  Done in one long, visually very complicated take, this scene ultimately becomes the Rosetta Stone for the whole film, as it tackles the complex moral issue of separating art from the artist.  The BIPOC, pangender student says they can't relate to music written by white, cisgender males, but Lydia raises the following question: If you can dismiss Bach's music based on Bach's identity, doesn't that also mean other people can dismiss your music based on your identity?  It's an issue without an easy answer, and it's really the main theme of Tàr, given a new twist by changing the sex of the influential power abuser to female.

Lydia becomes the subject of an investigation after a former protégé commits suicide, citing Lydia's mistreatment and her alleged blacklisting of this young woman as the main reasons.  One can't help but notice story parallels with Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, and this isn't the only one in the movie.  When a young female cellist applies for the Berlin orchestra and Lydia immediately shows favoritism toward her, the cycle threatens to repeat.

This film is definitely a slow-burn and seems to take some inspiration from Stanley Kubrick in the use of geometric camera angles (Todd Field himself was in Kubrick's final film), Christopher Nolan in its second- and third-act use of brief scenes and moments to ratchet up the tension, and Roman Polanski in its theme of a central protagonist slowly losing her marbles.

Of course none of it would work so well without Cate Blanchett's fearless dedication to the role; she is somehow able to make this unpleasant character sympathetic in a way that we want to spend two-and-a-half hours in her close company.  While Lydia's relationships with almost everyone around her are in service of getting exactly what she wants out of them, she does have a tender, loving bond with her adopted daughter Petra.  She's also so devoted to her art we can't help but get swept up in her passion; as a musician myself it's easy to identify with a character so consumed by the music they forget how to act socially.  Lydia's very occupation as a conductor of course involves "playing" the people in the orchestra as instruments, a neat tie-in with the film's theme.  Blanchett is an actress I've always found rather intimidating, with her resonant contralto vocal timber (I was today years old when I learned hers was the voice of the woman who saves Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut) and piercing eyes; I can't imagine anyone else playing this character with such a blend of natural presence, buried rage, and mounting desperation.  

As for the film itself, it's a pretty compelling, intimate look at a very flawed human being and the consequences even the very powerful must face for their actions, particularly in the age of social media, and while Field raises important questions, he leaves the answers to the viewer rather than stake a position in the matter.  Another lesson he must have learned from Kubrick: leaving these issues open-ended invites further discussion/interpretation about a film and its themes.  Tàr is a quite challenging movie, but never a boring one.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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