It’s hard to say that something has been worth the wait when that wait has been 16 years, which is how long it’s been since Todd Field’s previous feature, Little Children. All the same, it’s very good to have this fine filmmaker back on the scene with Venice Film Festival competition entry Tár, a weighty new drama that creates an exceptionally detailed portrait of a promethean artist eventually hoisted on her own petard.
Smart upscale audiences hungry for an absorbing high-end drama about a brilliant female conductor who might be her own worst enemy will luxuriate in this very of-the-moment look at the international classical music scene; probably never has a commercial American film devoted itself so intently and comprehensively to fashioning a many-layered portrait of what a top-tier contemporary musician actually does on a day-to-day basis.
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It takes a while for this nearly three-hour odyssey to achieve lift-off but, when it does, it soars. It’s more than worthy of any serious viewer’s attention, and classical music devotees will settle in happily for a long repast unlike anything they’ve seen onscreen before. Cate Blanchett hits another exceptional career high here in a dazzling performance that takes the film deeper with every scene.
At the very outset, some viewers might suspect that they’re being shown the film in the wrong order; in a possible first, the opening credits devote themselves to a lengthy scroll of all the tech personnel and international entities involved in the production. You have to stick around until the scroll’s very end to behold the names of the top-line participants. But this proves indicative of the film as a whole, which gets off to a rather overdrawn start but eventually clicks into high gear and stays there.
The luxuriant opening features Blanchett’s Lydia Tár speaking at length with Adam Gopnik at a New Yorker Festival discussion, where the conductor is essentially presented as a female incarnation of her beloved Leonard Bernstein — a piano prodigy as a youth, she’s brilliant, supremely communicative, first-rate at everything she does. In every respect, the woman is a star and worthy of it.
Tár also has a full personal life; her mate is Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), and they have a young adopted Syrian daughter who lives in Berlin, where Tár is conductor of a leading symphony orchestra (she curiously refers to herself as “a U-haul lesbian”). She’s absolutely at the top of her field, and one immediately senses that Blanchett has made this character completely own and that we’re in for one of the indelible all-time performances.
What becomes clear in the early-going is that Field is going to take his own sweet time to immerse you in the rarified world that these world-class artists inhabit. It goes without saying that Tár and those in her orbit are exceptional talents and the film dwells at length on their habits, the trappings of their lifestyle, Tár’s innumerable talents, her ever-alert radar for things interesting and new, the constant world travel and, commendably, her voracious curiosity.
There are stretches in the film’s nearly three hours that are more informational and colorful than dramatic, but one could rightly argue that few, if any, professional artists have ever been presented with a fuller picture of a complicated artist’s life — both psychologically and the way she spends her time — than the one Blanchett and Field present here. Both the actress and her character are insanely accomplished, as is her command of German, which Blanchett allegedly didn’t speak at all before taking on the role.
We see Tár respond not only to other people and the challenges of her job, but to small quotidian moments, to surprises and insights that others provide. One is given a glimpse of how, partly due to others’ interest in keeping her interested in them, an eminence like Tár is exposed to many more people, fresh ideas, opportunities, challenges and experiences than average folk normally are. The film makes very clear what a full and fascinating life such an eminence can build for herself, even as it does require them to remain in top form, and devoid of scandal or negligence, to stay on top.
We witness extended sequences in classrooms and in rehearsal, to an extent you’ve rarely seen because, in a conventional context, such scenes would generally be considered boring. But Field bores down to at least give a taste of what genuine artists do, how through a combination of natural talent and very hard work they can deliver something bracing, genuinely memorable. This is not the sort of blow-hard, tortured or insanely unruly artist the likes of which Ken Russell was so fond, but rather the sort that goes deeper and deeper into a work until it comes alive again, and occasionally in a fresh and revelatory way that can grab you anew.
All the same, the film’s final third takes Tár in a different and upsetting direction that stems from both public and private parts of the woman’s life. Its currents are very in sync with events that in the past might have been readily swept under the rug, and it does get ugly, leading to a strange finale no one will see coming.
There is no doubt that Tár is long, utterly entwined with its intellectual setting and will probably be palatable mostly to real highbrows and wannabes. But the film represents a daring and quite comprehensive immersion in a rarified world and features a lead performance the likes of which doesn’t come along very often. For anyone seriously interested in the refined arts, it’s something to deeply inhale again and again.
And may Todd Field go on a spree of making one film every year or two for the next couple of decades so he can make up for lost time.
After its Venice Film Festival world premiere on September 1, this Focus Features offering will open domestically on October 7.
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