As a massive Cate Blanchett fan, I had high hopes for this film. I knew Tár had divided critics but – what do they know? I set off for my solo treat on a freezing winter’s evening, the only question in my mind when – not if – I’d be able to watch it again. Alas… even before I got home and announced ‘It was a stinker,’ I was struggling to stay awake in my cinema seat.
Blanchett is completely convincing as Lydia Tár, world-famous conductor and maestro (‘We don’t call astronauts astronettes, do we?’ she informs the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik at the start of the film). Writer/ director Todd Field apparently created the role specially for Blanchett. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off. Her mastery of the classical music arena, as well as her apparent musical intelligence, is impressive and will surely bag her a Best Actress Oscar, to match her recent Bafta.
The film signals its intentions at the start: that long-winded interview between Tár and Gopnik is the kind of thing you’d find on an obscure arts channel. There’s no action at all. This is a film for egg-heads. It also helps if you understand German – into which Tár/Blanchett slips effortlessly and convincingly – as it’s not always translated for the viewer. Another distancing factor.
In her beautiful Berlin apartment with her partner and their child, Tár is at the pinnacle of her career. But she’s starting to fall apart. She’s treated her juniors badly – during the film we learn that her previous protégée has taken her own life. She also seems to be suffering aural delusions – or is she? And someone’s watching her…
Despite these promising complications, the pace is glacial. There is the odd tense moment, when Tár is deleting incriminating emails, or when she’s threatened by a growling dog (in a run-down apartment block, where she’s followed her latest love interest, in a scene reminiscent of Blanchett’s superb Carol). But they’re not developed.
Having felt excluded by the intense discussion of classical music terms and personalities, I was further annoyed by the film’s portrayal of the Yoof of Today, when Tár humiliates a student who ‘doesn’t get’ Bach. Okay, the young man offers a simplistic and daft argument – but some of us are fed up with the canon, in all areas of art. How much more interesting, and potentially risky, to have the young man produce a thought-provoking analysis; and for Tár to even engage with it.
A 2015 report found that women make up 1.4% of conductors in professional British orchestras. Worldwide, the numbers can’t be too different today. Lydia Tár is a successful woman in an impossibly tough field. So why does she have to be abusive? Why does she have to have a breakdown? Sure, it’s art – and the film is beautiful, the music uplifting, the cinematography stylish. But in my view art has responsibilities. There’ll be room for a beautiful film about a crazy, abusive female conductor when women in that area have achieved equality of status and representation.