By Carter James
“Tár” is one of the most captivating films I’ve seen all year. At first glance, you might think this a standard prestige biopic or even an inaccessible arthouse film, but all my expectations were subverted, and in turn succeeded.
What’s on display is a nearly 2 hour and 40-minute character study about a fictional female composer at the turning point in her life. Every scene burning into the next, and every passing minute trapping you into the intoxicating world of Lydia Tár.
Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett, proves in only mere seconds why she is regarded as one of the best contemporary composers. Her commanding presence is felt every scene of the film, even those without her on screen. She exudes dominance over everyone who crosses paths with her. Everyone is either in admiration, jealousy or fear of her.
Once she is alone however, the façade of power fades away. For as proficient as she is in conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, she struggles to develop a leitmotif. While endlessly confident and charismatic in the leagues of her contemporaries and classical music, Tár is stuck within her mind, paranoid of the world outside, and sometimes within, the world of music.
Blanchett completely disappears into Lydia Tár. The character does not work without Blanchett, and this is a role that takes her skill and already prodigious career to whole new level. It doesn’t even take a second for Blanchett to have a commanding presence in every scene. Even at Tár’s most vulnerable moments, the ball is in Blanchett’s court. Her performance is the best of the year and it’s not even close to any other actress or actor. Blanchett has made a league of her own.
As for the film itself, there’s not a single moment where I wasn’t fully entranced. For most films with a slow burn, it takes time to garner my full investment. But I was fully invested in the opening scene. What followed was the film slowly unraveling its true nature, and in turn the true colors of Lydia Tár, through a series of long, transfixing scenes. These scenes added depth to the complex world Tar has made for herself, and the consequences of someone who craves for control of every facet of their life.
Director Todd Field takes a film that, on paper, would not lend to anything technically grand or stylistic, and gives it this sleek and uniform feel. There’s a tremendous amount of precision behind every shot, lending to the tense and unsettling atmosphere throughout the film.
With the impressive long takes and showy yet precise camera movements, Field has a level of restraint most directors dream of. Never does the film bleed over into flashy display of technique nor a pretentious display of simplicity, but ebbs and flows like a piece of music. Like Tár conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, Field conducts the film as if it were a symphony – the symphony itself being masterful descent into chaos.
As much as I’ve sung the praises of Blanchett and Field, the rest of the cast and crew make up a brilliant ensemble. The supporting performances are all very strong. The standout of those performances is from Noémie Merlant. While her character, Francesca, is quiet, she is strong and compassionate in comparison to a cold and calculating Tár.
The cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister is excellent. While this is not a colorful film, the use of natural tones and grey is expertly accompanied by soft and naturalistic feel of the lighting. Composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, wrote a score that was inspired by the film, and it’s phenomenal. The film itself does not feature any of the original score, but Guðnadóttir captures the essence and unsettling nature of the film.
In the absence of the original score is excerpts from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 that Tár conducts throughout the film, and other classical pieces. The presence of these classical pieces do not go unnoticed and are characters and set pieces within themselves.
The most surprising part of the technical aspects, however, is the sound design. The sound design is expertly crafted to add to the tension of the film.
“Tár” is nothing short of a masterpiece. From start to finish, I was riveted by every aspect of the film. Blanchett gives a career, awards worthy performance, showing how fundamentally essential she is to the film’s success. The film is a haunting exploration of the how even the mightiest can have a fall from grace. “Tár” could be a film that leans into the conventions of contemporary art-house cinema but exceeds all expectations by being a tense character-study with a shocking amount of relevance.