‘Tár,’ the #metoo ghost story

Images courtesy Focus Features.

9/10 Tár is a three-hour long talkie. Only a certain kind of person is going to be up for this, but it’s for that certain kind of person, nuanced, detailed, more rewarding the more attention you’re paying and formed around a signature central performance from one of history’s greatest actresses.

Berlin- World-renowned composer-conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, who also produces executively) has done it all in her career, playing at each of the big five American orchestras on her way to her current seat as the first ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but behind the scenes, it’s clear she’s spent decades abusing her authority to select young women and keep them close for sex. As she prepares for a live recording of Maher’s transformative fifth symphony, which is to be the climax of her career, Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), an old victim who Tár blackballed from the conducting industry, escalates her stalking of Tár, and Tár begins to suffer nightmares and hear disembodied sounds in her waking life.

Tár is a purpose-built showcase for Blanchett, and she is perfect, her every twitch and inflection deliberate and revealing. Everything in this movie is about watching Blanchett do her thing. Writer/director/producer Todd Field, making his first film in 15 years, said he wrote Tár specifically for her and would have trashed the entire project if she’d turned him down. Editor Monika Willi and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister are clearly in on it as well, as the film appears to be shot and stitched together around Blanchett’s performance.

Lots of Oscar movies are tilted toward actors – actors make up most of the Academy’s voting body, so having a buzzy performance with high-profile “Oscar moments” is a good way to push toward the front of the awards line. Tár is about the smaller parts of the craft. Blanchett is onscreen for almost the entire 158-minute run of the film, which is made up of several extremely long scenes and long takes with lots of close-ups and extremely rehearsed conversational scenes, much more of a stage than a screen performance from a woman who’s delivered many of both.

We’re immediately cued into how calm and smooth the next three hours are going to be by the opening expository scene with New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik (himself), during which Tár answers questions about herself in an interview setting. Blanchett’s expertise and the kind of hands we’re in is immediately obvious as she performs as Tár performing her public face, showing us exactly what she wants us to see through the flourishes and deflections of the interview.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of Tár’s enduring images is Blanchett looking like she’s seen a ghost.

The film gets progressively more expressionistic as we move deeper in, taking us regularly into Tár’s dreams, and at one point, it completely stops and turns into a horror movie for a few minutes. Marco Bittner Roser’s production design slowly takes over the film as the sheer surfaces of the Berlin streets and office interiors suddenly become extensions of Tár’s apartment – and her psyche. It’s never clear what’s happening around Tár, but obvious that she personally is going off the rails.

It’s a borrowed observation that Tár is fundamentally a ghost story, but a keen one and one that should have been obvious, one that locks into place everything that seems so mysterious about the film. What’s confusing, and I don’t think it’s meant to be confusing as much as it’s so well-integrated that it’s hard to identify, is how welded Tár is into the 21st century, specifically the post-#metoo era. Gothic horror is iconic to the late-1800s, there are no smartphones in “Dracula” or “Frankenstein.” Once that clicks into place, it’s all there. The core idea is to work 21st century communication motifs into Gothic horror plot points – it isn’t just the frightening sounds that have no source, it’s the incriminating emails that don’t disappear despite being repeatedly deleted or the guest lecture for which phones were collected that was recorded from a perspective where no one was standing.

In this setting, where we’re denied most of the evidence or even the specific accusations against Tár, her cancellation becomes part of the haunting. Her lectures are suddenly protested and sparsely populated, and we know why, but we aren’t really sure. Her allies and employees, including her favorites, suddenly cut off contact, seemingly all at once and with no explanation given to Tár herself. 

In a #metoo-filled Oscar season, Tár is about the experience of getting #canceled set against Tár’s overwhelming ego, but also her overwhelming work ethic and love for conducting. The premise creates an immediate inversion – because Tár’s wrongdoing is all offscreen and minimized within her own perspective, we don’t get the details, but because she is a woman abusing other women, many assumptions about sexual abuse and grooming don’t fit. The policy is to “believe all women,” but in Tár, the primary woman we would be believing isn’t around. The film forces viewers to confront what we want to think about these situations and why.

In spite of a scant $5.7 million theatrical run that peaked at 1,090 theaters, Tár has been racking up year-end nominations and awards, with Martin Scorsese crashing the New York Film Critic’s Circle ceremony to say the film has given him hope for the future of cinema. It’s a lock for Best Picture and Best Actress nominations, and I’ll be there to see it again when it re-releases. Tár is a rich movie worth clearing a night for and properly sitting through and enjoying.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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