Tár movie review: Enthralling Cate Blanchett hits a career high note as a furious and entitled orchestra conductor
Tár (15A, 158mins)
othing symbolises the mystery of high art quite so dramatically as a concert conductor.
They stand on a podium, hair askew, waving arms about, but playing no instrument, apparently producing nothing.
But beneath them, the massed orchestra watches intently, heaving back and forth like a formally dressed wave in response to each subtle gesture of their master, a fizzing conduit to the intent of dead composers.
Quite the racket then and one dominated since the dawn of time by men. But in Tár, Todd Field’s intense, intriguing drama, a woman has stormed the citadels of the symphony.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a force of nature, a female conductor with rock star charisma who’s risen like a dose of salts through the American classical scene.
A protégé of Leonard Bernstein, lauded for her interpretations of Bach and Mahler, Lydia has landed the top job in classical music, and is now principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
With patrician ease, she has decamped to the German city and set up house with Sharon (Nina Hoss), a cellist and her romantic partner: the couple share an adopted child.
In a clever establishing device that might have been corny but somehow rings true, Lydia submits to a public interview with The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.
As he introduces her, Gopnik gives a potted summary of Lydia’s almost hilariously accomplished CV — studied at Harvard, won an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy, and recorded all of Mahler’s symphonies but one, the Fifth, which she’s about to take on.
These are the kind of achievements that once formed a path to unimpeachable power, but in this age of cultural fatwas, everyone is a target, as Lydia is about to find out.
It seems that Tár is something of a sexual predator, who uses power to seduce younger musicians.
A former protégé is causing trouble on social media and her current assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is also unhappy, but Lydia is indifferent: all she cares about is her beloved Berlin Philharmonic and that upcoming recording of Mahler’s Fifth for Deutsche Grammophon.
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But as she rehearses them frantically, more unflattering stories emerge online and Lydia’s increasingly precarious position is not helped by her passion for new Russian cellist Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer).
Through it all, Lydia remains furious, entitled, difficult to dismiss, impossible to like. Does she deserve all this? Lydia has behaved badly and at one point,
Sharon points out to her that every relationship in her life has been transactional, apart from the one from her daughter. In a scene you’ll either applaud or be horrified by, Lydia rocks up to her kid’s school, finds a girl who’s been bullying her and whispers: “I’ll get you.”
Tár is full of such studied ambivalence. Is it easier to sympathise with Lydia because she’s a gay woman, and not a middle-aged man?
There’s also the matter of how much it has taken to rise to the top of a bastion of male entitlement and late on, we get a sense of how Lydia has painstakingly invented herself.
None of this excuses her flagrant abuse of power of course, nor her snarling superiority. In the film’s most talked about scene, she’s teaching a class at Juilliard when a student who identifies as BIPOC transgender explains how he will not engage with JS Bach because he was a straight white man who fathered 20 children and must therefore have been a misogynist.
Lydia tears a strip out of him and implies that he’s a nitwit, which indeed he is, but he will get his own back.
Tár treads a fine line through these vexed and pertinent arguments, is beautifully photographed and can be forgiven for going slightly over the top in its fruity climax.
It’s a fascinating drama, packed with attitude and ideas, and Blanchett is absolutely enthralling as Lydia Tár, an exhausting woman to be with and watch.
Rating: Five stars
Trailers for this bright and breezy sci-fi horror make it look dimwitted, and trashy: in fact it’s anything but.
Parenthood, grief and our reliance on technology are among the themes explored in M3GAN, an entertaining Blumhouse production which opens in tragedy.
When both her parents are killed in a car crash, 10-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) goes to live with her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics expert at a hi-tech toy company.
An obsessive workaholic, Gemma is not equipped to deal with the child’s grief and instead introduces Cady to Megan (played by Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis), a sophisticated robotic doll.
Once Megan bonds with the child, she becomes its loyal protector, but sadly this extends to whacking the neighbour’s dog and taking out a playground bully.
All of this is cleverly done: Megan does a fine line in snarky teenage sarcasm, and the cynicism of Gemma’s bosses is breathtaking. M3GAN is a clever dystopian chiller and raises an interesting question — is all this smart technology making us stupider?
Rating: Four stars
Cornish trickster Mark Jenkin is at it again in Enys Men, a spare and haunting 16mm folk horror that ponders the terrors of time.
In the spring of 1973, a wildlife volunteer and conservationist (Mary Woodvine) has come to a remote and rocky Cornish island to observe the progress of a rare wild flower.
Every morning, she tramps across a boggy heath to ponder the delicate-looking plant, then returns to the little cottage she’s staying in to write down the date and the words, “no change”.
Then a mysterious fungus appears on one of the flowers and also on a deep scar across the woman’s stomach, the result of a childhood injury.
But as she goes about her daily vigil, she sees, or imagines she sees, vestiges of the island’s past — 19th century tin miners, a throaty preacher, female weavers, the shades of fishermen lost at sea.
Is she going mad, and is the affair she has with a balding fisherman real? We never find out, for Jenkins is more interested in exploring the faded echoes of a place’s past. Marcel Proust would have loved it.
Rating: Four stars
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