Film Festival review: Tár

This dramatic portrait of a brilliant yet haunted conductor showcases the fierce screen power of Australian actor Cate Blanchett, who was in town for a special screening of Tár at the Adelaide Film Festival.

Oct 24, 2022, updated Oct 27, 2022
Cate Blanchett as German conductor Lydia Tár.

Cate Blanchett as German conductor Lydia Tár.

Cate Blanchett is at the height of her powers, a maestro in the field of acting whose latest triumph is Todd Field’s Tár, a festival standout.

To create a character as convincing as Lydia Tár, the fictional conductor of a major German orchestra, Blanchett had to master considerable craft. She picked up on her childhood piano, studied conducting technique and learnt enough German to be able to converse with the orchestra like someone who had lived in Berlin for seven years. The German was Blanchett’s own touch, she said in a Q&A following the Adelaide screening; she thought someone living in Germany for that long would be speaking it by now.

Field, who Blanchett worked with on the Bob Dylan-inspired I’m Not There, wrote the role for Blanchett and the movie would not have gone ahead without her. She is in every scene, from the opening sequence when she walks on stage at The New Yorker Festival to be interviewed by the real writer Adam Gopnik about her career and music. The sequence, long and weighty, makes no compromises for audiences who don’t know their Mahler from Elgar. In a worshipful interview peppered with esoteric asides, we learn Tár is about to tackle Mahler’s 5th symphony. It is, significantly, a piece about love.

Tár is a privileged musician and conductor who is also gay, and a bully who crosses invisible lines between inspiring her students and crushing them. An extended take early on, the starting point for the film in Field’s mind, shows Tár with a Juilliard class, manhandling and deriding a group of students. Or was she opening their minds to the reality of what conducting will demand of them? It depends.

More problematic is the way Tár keeps a lascivious eye out for attractive musicians who she grooms and puts into positions close to her, as a conductor’s assistant or bag carrier on a work trip. What else she does is not made clear but her behaviour is getting more brazen. She has left a trail and accusations are being made.

The core of the film is the abuse of power by a woman whose position puts her in total control over others. An orchestra is not a democracy, she tells her daughter. Yes, but how you exercise that power shows who you are.

Blanchett’s performance – which includes conducting a large orchestra with ferocious energy – is dazzling, and everyone rises to meet her. Tár’s wife, concertmaster Sharon Goodnow (German actor Nina Hoss), comes across as the gentle violinist and enabler, while her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant, from Portrait of a Lady on Fire), is the quietly aspiring conductor who Tár treats like a plaything.

Tár leads the real Dresden symphony orchestra in rehearsal as they prepare for Mahler’s 5th and all of the film’s music is sourced from within the plot. The depth of the musical immersion adds to the film’s grandeur, and Blanchett (as she told the Adelaide audience) was a convert to music’s power.

The film is flawed, and the complex threads of narcissism and cancel culture peter out while hints of the supernatural are just extraneous. Towards the end, Field has boxed himself in and opts for a tonal switch that descends into farce. But the riches we take away are from Blanchett’s portrayal of a brilliant, haunted conductor corrupted by her own power to stop and start time with a baton.

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Tár screened at the Capri Theatre as part of the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival. It will have an encore screening at 8pm on November 1 at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas, and a general release in Australia from late January 2023.

Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.


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