Cate Blanchett sets the screen ablaze in Oscars 2023 favourite

tar ★★★★½
(M) 158 minutes

Todd Fields tar breaks all the rules of conventional screenwriting. It opens with a long take dominated by image-serving dialogue – that of a supremely confident Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) who paints a verbal self-portrait, describing her life as an acclaimed conductor.

She is being interviewed on stage by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, giving him an outrageously intellectual overview of the mechanics of music making and the philosophy behind it.

Cate Blanchett as celebrated conductor Lydia Tar.

Cate Blanchett as celebrated conductor Lydia Tar.Credit:focus functions

The tone is so sublime and at the same time so elliptical that it feels like watching a biographical documentary. Or maybe a filmed play. It certainly doesn’t look or sound like an American film coming to theaters these days. There’s a decidedly European feel to Field’s way of prompting his audience to look for clues that further elucidate his subject matter. On the other hand, the film comes from Focus Features, the company behind some of the most intelligent American images of the past 20 years, including Lost in translation and Brokeback Mountain.

The suggestion that Field should make a film about a conductor originally came from Focus, but Field didn’t expect them to accept the script he produced. It was supposed to be his first film in 15 years and from interviews he’s given it sounds like he’s a little scared of it. But the green light went on and Blanchett’s performance set it ablaze. She is immersed in every aspect of Tar’s character: her arrogance, her joy in music, her pernicious need to wield power, and her dizzying fall from grace. Blanchett, who has already won a Golden Globe for the role, deserves the awards.

Tar’s personality is evident in her every move: the athleticism of her style on the concert stage, the impatience with which she storms through life from the podium, and the despair in her eyes as her carefully constructed existence begins to crumble.

Blanchett delves into every aspect of Tar's character, including her pernicious need to wield power.

Blanchett delves into every aspect of Tar’s character, including her pernicious need to wield power.Credit:focus functions

It happens when her career is at its peak. She is launching a memoir – modestly titled tar on tar – and she rehearses Mahlers Fifth Symphony in Berlin, where she lives with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss), the concertmaster and first violinist of the orchestra, and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). But soon we learn the quickness of her temper. It’s an early scene, a long uncut sequence, in which Tar meets an equally confident young student who makes the mistake of telling her that he despises Bach’s music because of the composer’s human flaws. There is little doubt as to who will win this dispute.

At this point, her ego seems to be in such a rude state that no one could change it. It also takes regular exercise, hence her habit of playing favorite musicians with the young female musicians she meets. These relationships have a pattern. They go through three phases – seduction, submission and rejection – and their assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), an aspiring conductor, has reached phase two while a former assistant is stuck in phase three. We don’t meet her, but her distressed emails about being unable to find work are a testament to Tar’s reckless efforts to halt her career. Cate Blanchett sets the screen ablaze in Oscars 2023 favourite

Jaclyn Diaz

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