Cate Blanchett turns in a brilliant performance in the somewhat muddled film "Tar"
The Oscar-nominated film Tar is an enigma. Written and directed by Todd Field, whose previous films, In the Bedroom and Little Children, won numerous awards and audience approval. His much-praised Tar tells the story of a gifted orchestra conductor named Lydia Tar. Critics have raved about this film, a few calling it the greatest cancel-culture film ever made.
I chose to see Tar without previous knowledge of its storyline. As the film begins, traditional end credits appear. Not a great start, but I persevered. Next comes a brief bio of Ms. Tar. That detail has given many viewers the idea that Lydia Tar is a real person. She is not. For those who would like to see a movie about a real-life powerful female orchestra conductor, the 2021 documentary , The Conductor, streaming on Prime Video, fills the bill nicely.
What follows in Tar are the opinions of the fictional conductor on subjects relating to classical music, particularly Mahler’s works and aspects of conducting and recording. The first half hour is visually dull and steeped in an academia of interest to serious students of classical music.
The drama begins as Tar interacts with a young male student at Juilliard. She is ruthless in dealing with him, and he gets more and more upset. His leg shakes mercilessly as though he needs the bathroom right away. This is an interesting scene because we learn that Tar can be unrelenting and offensive.
The following two hours embellish that point. My friend Joyce pointed out that Lydia Tar is a character much like the stereotypical overbearing male boss who forces women to do his bidding, most often to have sex with him. That point becomes clear as the story of the rise and fall of Lydia Tar is revealed.
I think that is the strongest element in the plot, but I didn’t see that cancel-culture element at first. I was sidetracked. All I could see and feel were the sheer power of Cate Blanchett’s performance. She has created a character so unique that it wasn’t till my discussion with Joyce that I saw Tar as representative of the sexual predator of the #Me Too movement. Blanchett’s portrayal of Lydia Tar is outstanding, magical. She dominates a film with a storyline that otherwise is difficult to appreciate.
One element of the story bothers me. Throughout the last two hours, we are brought into the personal life of Tar. She is lesbian. She is in a satisfying relationship with the orchestra’s concert master, played with skill by Nina Hoss. She is a powerhouse. She leads one of the world’s finest orchestras. By the end, through a series of implied and occasionally illustrated events, Tar’s life is broken.
So I ask: Does this film give the viewer yet another example of a lesbian character who finds success and happiness and then for some reason must lose that fulfillment? I keep thinking of the uproar that followed the tragedy befalling Kate, the lesbian teacher/wife/mother, in Last Tango in Halifax. The creator of the series, Sally Wainwright, was put feet to the flame for adding to the dead lesbian cliché. Wainwright was so devastated by the criticism that she followed up with the series Gentleman Jack about the historical figure, Anne Lister, known by many as the first modern lesbian.
Lydia Tar certainly is castigated for her nasty behavior. Tar may well be a work in the sad tradition of the dead lesbian cliché.
Tar strikes me as an oddity, so uneven. It’s a film that won’t let go of music academia, and a plot that takes place as often in the confines of offscreen as it does onscreen. Throughout, however, Cate Blanchett is dazzling.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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