‘TÁR’ Is the First Fall Movie You Really Have to See

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It’s been a strange, half-hearted year for movies, but things are about to get interesting. A high-minded slate of serious awards-season films are coming, and opening only in theaters (or in theaters and then on Netflix), and there are quite a few that are powerful, or provocative, or wonderfully strange, or altogether worth venturing out to see.

All of those descriptions apply to TÁR, opening today in limited theaters, and it’s a barnburner, an art-house provocation with a megastar at its center in Cate Blanchett. I staggered out of TÁR— which is writer-director Todd Field’s third film and his first in 16 years—bludgeoned by its power, its aesthetic precision, its storytelling authority, and, yes, the running time (158 minutes). It’s a tour de force in many respects, especially on a big screen with theatrical sound, and a galvanizing reason to wholly submit yourself to movies again.

Be warned: TÁR is suspenseful and gripping but also proudly erudite–the kind of movie that opens with an extended sequence at The New Yorker Festival. The scene is a public conversation between the conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett) and the writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself), and Blanchett establishes her character’s regal bearing as Gopnik summarizes her bonafides: every major achievement in the classical music world, a brace of awards, and a major forthcoming autobiography, Tár on Tár. She’s a dominating public figure who leads the Berlin Philharmonic and is readying a career-pinnacle performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 5. Blanchett is implacable in the face of the applause, the praise. She’s a genius and she knows it, terrifyingly self-assured.

And so begins a movie about creative brilliance and monstrous behavior existing side by side, a story that makes you think of #MeToo and cancel culture but doesn’t tell you what to feel about either of those things. Tár is in a long-term relationship with the lead violinist of her orchestra, Sharon (played by Nina Hoss), and they live with their young adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), in a dreamily brutalist Berlin apartment. The existence is one of exquisite, chilly luxury, but Tár’s life is unraveling fast, thanks mostly to her sexual compulsions, which we come to know about through deft storytelling strokes: her worshipful, wounded assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) acts like a spurned lover; a veiled, threatening gift arrives out of the blue; and when a young Russian cellist appears to audition for her orchestra, Tár is helplessly rapt.

Blanchett is in every scene of this movie, and she’s formidable. Just give her the Oscar: This is acting as a display of power—Blanchett trained as a conductor for the role, as a pianist, learned to speak German, and even (according to press notes) practiced driving at a racetrack for one sequence where she’s behind the wheel. She gives Tár so many dimensions—of cruelty, vulnerability, helplessness—that you never know exactly how to feel about her. A duel with a Juilliard student about the merits of Bach (one more dead, white male) has quicksilver intelligence; she obliterates him with her arguments, but her arrogance is on display too. Eventually, comeuppance is due, and the film delivers it. The denouement is maybe hurried for such a methodically controlled film, but it haunts you, too—and is devoid of moralizing.

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