- Written and directed by Todd Field
- Starring Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant
- Classification R; 158 minutes
- Opens in Toronto theatres Oct. 14, Vancouver and Montreal Oct. 21, and across the country Oct. 28
Are we entering the terrifying era of the cancel-culture movie? Five years after Harvey Weinstein’s fall and its subsequent #MeToo reckoning rocked the entertainment world, we are now getting a handful of meta-contextual productions from filmmakers attempting to address the problems of their own industry. At first blush, this seems like a self-destructive recipe for disaster. But shockingly, these movies are – at least so far – tremendous achievements.
Okay, so only two movies on this theme have actually been released as of now – a third entitled She Said, which address the Weinstein saga head-on as it chronicles the New York Times reporters responsible for exposing his crimes, will have its world premiere at the New York Film Festival later this week – but those two are both excellent, in startlingly different ways.
The first, September’s horror movie Barbarian, looks at so-called cancel culture from a hilariously dark perspective, one that cannot be discussed in-depth without spoiling writer-director Zach Cregger’s deliciously demented twists. Just watch it, please – right now, if you can.
Todd Field’s new film Tár, though, is the cancel-culture movie that I can discuss freely without feeling any spoiler guilt. An engrossing and stylistically exacting work of cinema, Tár teases our political (as in: identity) sentiments with such a ferocious artistic confidence that you will leave the theatre with questions, arguments, demands – but most of all a supremely fulfilling sense of satisfaction. Here is a film that not only starts a debate but almost ends it, too.
Where so much of round-and-round contemporary cultural discourse is forbidding and anxiety-inducing – even writing the word “discourse” breaks a little part of my Twitter-addled brain – Tár might make arguing with strangers on the internet worthwhile. If only to recall the film’s commitments to storytelling, characters, aesthetics and ideas.
Field opens his film with an elongated bout of exposition that initially feels like a screenwriting boast, until you realize that there is a grand architecture to the whole thing. Seated onstage for an coastal-elite interview with The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (appearing as himself), Field introduces us to Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the greatest composer in the world. One of the rare “EGOTs” of our time – that is, someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – Lydia is an icon, commanding respect everywhere she goes. This includes her class at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, her podium in Berlin leading the Philharmoniker and the expensively chilly home (all cement walls and fully stacked built-in bookshelves) that she shares with her violinist wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic).
As Gopnik tells his audience – basically, us – in this extended opening scene, Lydia is a genius of no comparison. It is clear that we are in the presence of a god. (Even Alec Baldwin chimes in, his aural cameo amusingly popping up immediately after Gopnik’s scene, reminding the few skeptics who remain that the podcast powers-that-be agree with every plaudit.)
But then Field, with the wit and rigour of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he is doing, spends the remainder of his film carefully dismantling that genius.
His story moves slowly, with tiny details that crack Lydia’s cult of personality not so much hidden in the margins as delicately placed for audiences to discover on repeated viewings. Initially, Lydia is presented as an essential, irreplaceable cultural force – someone who is supremely confident in her artistic voice, her ability, her vision. No matter the professional or personal costs, or the alliances that needed to be forged along the way. Don’t worry, though: Field is aware that the same could be said of him, or any other filmmaker attempting to tally the price of perfection.
Cleverly, almost dastardly, the director gets us on Lydia’s side. Try to not be charmed while watching her find just the right musical balance in her orchestra, or throw herself into her own writing, or trade easy wits with those who revere and fear her, from her overworked assistant (Noémie Merlant) to her business partner with musical aspirations, though not the innate talent, of his own (Mark Strong, under an amusingly floppy wig).
We are also prodded to align with Lydia as she dresses down one of her young Juilliard students, who describes himself as “BIPOC, pan-gender,” but who our presumed hero slags as another “millennial robot.” As the young musician criticizes the racism and misogyny of the masters whom he is asked to revere, Lydia serves up a “separate the art from the artist” defence that plays so well to Field’s own presumed audience. For a moment – a long delightfully uncomfortable stretch, actually – it seems that Field has made a rebuke to the hastiness of cancel culture. A rallying cry to let accusations remain just that, and a plea to push the overly woke back into a harsh slumber. I can imagine certain scenes provoking spontaneous applause.
But then the story becomes more complicated, as Field collects the narrative bread crumbs that he previously dropped. Lydia’s relationship to Sharon turns out to contain significant complications. There are whispers, then shouts, about Lydia’s involvement with one former student, and then another. And what, exactly, are Lydia’s intentions with the new, doe-eyed and hopelessly naive cellist who has joined her orchestra?
Field has spent at least part of the 16 years since he last released a film, 2006′s Little Children, constructing a remarkable movie that feels both eternal and of-the-moment. Tár is calculated and sincere. Bitterly funny, but without sacrificing high drama. There are elements of horror (one scene in which Lydia investigates a Berlin basement even unintentionally recalls Tár’s cancel-culture brethren Barbarian) and dreamy Amex Black Card-required fantasy. And it all lands with a final joke that will leave you grinning, or in tears. Or both.
Of course, Tár might have collapsed into itself were it not for Blanchett. The actress – who by this point in her career is the acting world’s own Lydia Tár, minus, I presume-slash-hope, all that other stuff – lives and breathes this character. Prepare for the rest of the movie-going year to be taken up by slack-jawed amazement at how Blanchett studied classical musical technique from the ground up for this role, how she learned German, how she methodically cloaked herself in a life not her own. But all this backgrounds a performance that grips and lingers, seduces and destroys. Watching her is a thrilling, incomparable experience. All hail the maestro – everyone else is cancelled.