The cultural conversation around “separating the art from the artist” has been around for decades but the public discourse surrounding the philosophy has been especially fervent over the past few years. How much of the messiness of one’s personal life is permissible to spill into their professional creative work? At what point do we deem their improprieties too great a liability to continue to support one’s art, no matter how essential it may seem to be? Does a pattern of ostracism or vigilantism create a chilling effect for creators to speak openly and honestly in public forum and stifle artistic expression? Should the works of those artists whose misdeeds reach criminal level be expunged? The new film Tár doesn’t just wrestle with these questions; it deepens their meaning and gives us a new narrative upon which to consider our answers.

Tár tells the story of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic with an unparalleled résumé so voluminous that it would likely spill off the bookplate of a sheet music stand. She’s led her orchestra through all of Mahler’s symphonies, save his sweeping number 5, which will be recorded live before an audience and pressed to vinyl. Tár’s day-to-day is guided by her personal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) and her nights are spent in a spacious apartment with her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also the principal first violin player in the Philharmonic. The addition of young Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) to the orchestra and the emergence of incriminating allegations against Tár from a former conducting apprentice lead to mounting pressures that threaten to knock the renowned maestro off her raised podium.

Lydia Tár is not a real person but from the opening moments of his first film in 16 years, writer/director Todd Field presents a profile so precise that some may be fooled into thinking this is a biopic. Tár throws a lot at its audience from the outset — even aside from the full set of opening credits and acknowledgements — but that’s by design. Tár is a larger-than-life figure whose body of work is meant to be as intimidating as her physical body is in the tight low angle shots where her arms span the frame. This is masterful filmmaking covering a gargantuan figure that is told through a symphony of moments so small, they can sometimes be easy to miss on the first pass. These carefully orchestrated phrases and movements lead to a breathtaking finale as salient and satisfying as any conclusion I’ve seen for a film so far this year.

In an opening interview, Tár speaks on the grave importance of time to her work and the same can be said for the way that Field chooses to arrange and pace this fall from grace story about assiduous ambition and accrued arrogance. Some scenes, like a mesmerizing one-take during a teaching session at Juilliard, flow gracefully for minutes at a time, while the sequences of the orchestra playing tend to be cut at a quicker tempo to match the dynamics of the pieces they’re performing. With editor Monika Willi, Field establishes a storytelling method that is pensive and patient, more indicative of masters from East Asian cinema than any modern American filmmakers I can recall. The ambiguity and subtext that Field leaves for his audience to parse over reminded me of the way Lee Chang-dong or Wong Kar-wai trust their viewers to unpack the complexities of their stories.

Cate Blanchett has won two Academy Awards, the first for portraying chatty screen legend Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator and the second for her work as the manic protagonist of Blue Jasmine. While both are fine performances, they showcase more surface-level delights as opposed to the more considered and nuanced roles Blanchett has taken at other points in her career. Her work in Tár is truly the entire package and calling it the finest performance in her filmography doesn’t feel like a stretch at this point. Field says that he not only wrote his script with Blanchett in mind for the title character but that if she had turned down the project, he never would have made the movie. It’s certainly not every actor who has screenplays tailor-made for them but when directors and performers are working harmoniously at the highest levels, the results can be transcendent.

Score – 5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Armageddon Time, a coming-of-age story starring Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong about a teenager living in 1980s New York who is sent to his older brother’s private school after being caught using drugs with his friend.
Premiering on Netflix is Enola Holmes 2, a mystery sequel starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill continuing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s now detective-for-hire sister as she takes her first official case to find a missing girl.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Causeway, a psychological drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry about a soldier who suffers a traumatic brain injury while deployed in Afghanistan and struggles to adjust to life back home.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup