Sixteen years have elapsed between Todd Field’s previous film Little Children and his new project TÁR, about an esteemed, domineering composer. There’s always something refreshing and impassioned about this minimal approach. It feels like only the best ideas would’ve broken through, instead of the industry standard of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what makes a few hundred million. TÁR’s gripping slowness reflects this restraint, like studying a symphony: imploring patience to soak in the movements.
At the start: a wide black screen hosts the kind of exhaustive credits usually reserved for the end, resembling an overture of sorts. Eventually, you're viewing a public interview with the EGOT composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) as she describes the silent beat preceding Beethoven’s Fifth.
Immediately, prior to realising it’s a compulsory activity, you’re studying Lydia – trying to find some clue, some way of figuring her out. This continues throughout the entire 160 minutes, gradually painting an elusive and troubling portrait of a powerful artist.
Photo: Focus Features
Despite Field's elegantly reserved writing and direction, TÁR wouldn't be the same movie without Cate Blanchett. The Lord of the Rings actor is perfect at playing rulers, and she reigns over Lydia’s orchestra with the same holy command as Galadriel over Lothlórien. Even the cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Pachinko) falls under Blanchett’s spell, his camera orbiting the actor like she's the centre of a musical universe.
That influence ripples across a confrontational scene during Lydia's lecture at The Juilliard School, in which a student refuses to play Bach for political reasons. She makes his leg shake. At Lydia's new position in Berlin, a similar tic affects her guest conductor who clicks his pen nervously. Fear, of a quiet kind, swarms around her. Quieter still: there’s an uncertain fear buried deep inside. As the film continues and her power starts to wane, one fear ingests the other.
Photo: Focus Features
Behind the precise rehearsal process to perform Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Lydia’s followed by an eerie presence. She’s filmed live by a faceless smartphone. Red-haired women glide into her periphery. An electronic bell disrupts her home piano playing. She hears a woman screaming in the park, but can’t find anyone. Are these experiences real? Are they fabrications? In any case, a haunting paranoia balloons in Lydia before finally exploding.
TÁR has a vague Black Swan quality; you even wonder what Darren Aronofsky would’ve made with Field’s screenplay. But that’s unfair to the latter’s slithering subtlety, the absence of stylistic or psychological flourishes that make the film even more mysterious – adding disparate elements to bloat the enigma of this rather unpleasant woman.
Then there’s the unseen, the parts you unlock yourself. With both warm and frosty interactions, what’s the history behind Lydia and her lovely assistant Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant)? Does Lydia’s wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) know the extent of her corruptive tendencies?
TÁR is a mystery in plain sight, a ghost story in which the phantom floats between invisibility and non-existence like Olivier Assayas’ grief-stricken Personal Shopper. Guilt pulls the film: first gently, and then apart as Lydia’s ego and security are stripped away. As the divisions between art and artist scramble together in the final minutes, you’re left wondering if Lydia has descended into a distressing concerto of muted chaos: her mind broken by her sins.
Sympathy and support are difficult to generate here, despite how long you spend with Lydia. Nevertheless, TÁR is a fervently fascinating piece to deconstruct.
TÁR will be in UK cinemas on Friday 13 January.
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13 Jan 23 – 13 Jan 24, IN CINEMAS
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