Review: Tension and Unease Abound in TÁR, as Power and Gender Dynamics Clash with Classical Music

When fictional classical conductor Lydia Tár (an electric Cate Blanchett) spouts the statement “Don’t be so eager to be offended” to a mixed-race student, I began to worry that this would be the message of writer/director Todd Field’s TÁR (Little Children; In the Bedroom), a study in power dynamics and gender politics at the highest ranks of the creative world. In fact, it is a statement that comes back to bite her in the ass. The student’s dismissal of the building blocks of Lydia’s classical music foundation are as offensive to her as her takedown of him for finding different composers’ personal lives troublesome to the point where he doesn’t want to learn their music. To Lydia, these are the basics, and to dismiss them outright is an affront.

When we meet Lydia, it’s onstage being interviewed in front of a packed house by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself. He opens the Q&A with a lengthy list of the achievements and accolades of this fictional, groundbreaking conductor, to make certain we’re aware of the legacy that is at stake when things begin to unravel for her later in the film. The interview itself reveals a great deal about her past (Leonard Bernstein was her mentor) and her present, when she alerts the crowd that she’s in the early stages of preparing to conduct a live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, thus completing her recording of all of his major works. Her being a groundbreaking female artist is brought up during the talk, but she always brings it back to it being her talent, not her gender, that got her where she is today. She doesn’t want to be seen as a novelty act among her peers or to the world outside.

Lydia has a small circle of people she trusts, despite being surrounded by people all the time in her position as head of the Berlin Philharmonic. She lives comfortably in Berlin with her partner and first violist, Sharon (the great Nina Hoss) and their young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). She has a dutiful assistant and aspiring conductor Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who keeps close tabs on Lydia’s world, while also attempting to seem like she’s doing so from a distance. She pays particular attention to the young players that Lydia meets with, including a talented and attractive young Russian cellist (Sophie Kauer), whom Lydia clearly has her eye on. We get a sense that Sharon is aware of Lydia’s dalliances and tolerates them as long as they don’t interfere with their work or home life.

But when accusations begin to surface after the suicide of another young player that Lydia allegedly groomed into a sexual relationship, Lydia finds herself on the defensive, although strangely this doesn’t stop her from continuing to move in on the cellist. It feels strange to hear about a woman in power being accused of something like this, but all things being equal (in theory), such charges have to be taken as seriously as if they were being said about a male counterpart. You can’t call a woman pompous and opportunistic, but call a man with the same traits confident and ambitious; that’s the gender power and politics examined in TÁR. The film filled me with anxiety and tension, because as much as we may not like Lydia as a person or professional, her influence and talent are indisputable. That doesn’t make anything she’s done right or better, and so the film forces us to examine our own hypocrisy when it comes to watching people we admire be revealed as problematic.

Director Fields and Blanchett have gone to extremes to immerse us into Lydia’s world and fill her life with details that absolutely assist us in believing that Blanchett is this person, with all her talent and flaws. When someone like Lydia is taken down, that means we no longer can be the recipient of the greatest, most fulfilling thing about them, which is both a shame and a necessity. The investigation into Lydia’s behavior is a complete stripping down of her privacy, and it begins a spiraling in her that ends with a gut-wrenching sequence involving her Mahler performance, and final shot that will stop your breath cold.

Throughout the film, Lydia hears strange noises in different places in her world: her apartment, in a park while out on a job, in her small space where she often works on her compositions. Each time the noise is different, sometimes it’s recognizable (screaming, a metronome), sometimes it’s terrifying, but each time it uneases Lydia and makes her feel like something is coming for her, in the vaguest of terms. Perhaps she’s losing her grip on reality, or maybe she’s more perceptive than that. She feels the “woke” tide turning and fears that she may get caught up in the undertow. She isn’t wrong, and TÁR is like watching someone get caught in a strong current in real time, powerless to do anything other than drown.

The film has a limited theatrical release this week (including at the Music Box Theatre and AMC River East) and opens wider next week.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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