Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 16, 2022 7:02 pm 
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A shimmering portrait of brilliance, cruelty, and downfall

This is a story of power and prestige and their apparent downfall focused on a conductor, a woman, and a lesbian, a greater rarity* at the pinnacle of international classical music who pushes too hard and maneuvers too cruelly, and has awful things happen to her. TÁR is a remarkable picture and signals to us the ascendency of its 'maker,' Todd Field, and his star, Cate Blanchett. We already knew Cate to be great, but here she gets an exceptional chance to prove it in in a rich and demanding role for which she learned to conduct - and convincingly, with originality, to rehearse - a symphony orchestra, to speak German, and to play, not just the piano, but Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, no less, mimicking the style of Glenn Gould for a moment while devastatingly dressing down a young student at Julliard who has let political correctness and his personal identity sweep away the western canon.

This is a worthwhile argument indeed. Surely we cannot allow Bach to be treated as icky because he was a cis-male white European man and sired 20 children. Putting the defense in the mouth of one so flawed as Lydia Tár leaves it properly ambiguous: we can't decide these things right now; there's still a lot of hashing-out to do. What authority Lydia has: she is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, behind her Leon Fürtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, and Claudio Abbado. But her dressing down of the attractive young mixed race Julliard conducting student, Max (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist), winds up with a jokey racial slur someone happens to break the rules of the meeting and film. And this is only the beginning - and not even, because before that there has been an interview appearance by The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik as himself, retailing all Lydia's accomplishments.

What Field has done in the sixteen years since he directed a film is uncertain, apparently nothing, but he has grown exponentially as a director. In the Bedroom (2001) was already an outstanding film, Little Children (2006) noteworthy enough for Telluride, Toronto, and New York; but TÁR takes on challenges of a higher magnitude, the complex international portrait of a sophisticated profession, one that is riveting, suspenseful and slyly malicious, and a personality that defies analysis. This is both an admiring portrait of the classical music world and cruel satire, the study of a brilliant artist and an anatomy of madness. Its maniacal extreme takes it into the growing world of high class horror. And yet Field avoids the over-the-top-ness of something like Black Swan. The music is still there. There's a respect for the complex juggling involved in conducting, administration, recording, promotion, and admiration and love for Mahler's Fifth and Elgar's Cello Concerto, the two works concentrated on.

There's a galaxy of satellites or "transactional" key relations around Lydia, starting with her lover and wife Sharon (the great German Actress Nina Hoss), her abused schoolgirl daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic), her selfless assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant). Then there are those who come and go, her assistant conductor Sebastian (actor and musician Allan Corduner) who she is "rotating out," a pretty young Russian cellist Olga (cellist and actress Sophie Kauer) who's being brought in. And there is a suicide. But she's alone, as is clear in a dangerous visit to a scary place, and a return to nameless American family where she watches an old videotape of a Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concert where the maestro, a mentor, affirms the sweet emotionality of classical music.

It isn't just a portrait of grand personal decline but also a remarkably complex picture of international celebrity music-making. The sequences of Lydia with a self-portrait book that's being published, working on a recording vs. a live performance, choosing the precise lighting and pose for the new Deutsche Grammophon album cover, these and so much mmore help fill out the details of such a complex role as major orchestra conductor. But it's the committees and boards she must meet with when she has fallen from grace that are the greatest challenge. Field opts also for a complex finale. He does not go into the details that would be generated by grotesque faux pas in a "cancel culture," social media world. Instead he shows Lydia soldiering on, still conducting a symphony orchestra in an unidentified Asian country for a Monster Hunter concert. What does that even mean?

As here, and throughout the whole film, Todd Field opts for complicated, sometimes puzzling details notable for their originality and specificity - and not for the kind of flashy style the material would lead you to expect. There is much material in TÁR for thought and investigation. It's the kind of movie you want to discuss and see again.
*One wonders what Marin Alsop think of this tale.

TÁR, 158 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 1, 2022, showing also at Telluride, New York, Mill Valley, and a few other festivals. Limited theatrical release started Oct. 8. Screened for this review at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, Oct. 16, 2022. Metacritic rating: 90%. (Now 12/2/22 91%. According to the now only online Film at Lincoln Center publication Film Comment, which staged a podcast debate 12/1/22 between Jessica Kiang, Pro, and Nathan Lee, Con, this is a highly controversial film but you wouldn't think that from Metacritic, which has hardly any dissenters.)

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