Movie review: 'Tár' is aggressively challenging, ultimately rewarding

Cate Blanchett plays conductor Lydia Tár. Photo courtesy of Focus Features
1 of 5 | Cate Blanchett plays conductor Lydia Tár. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- At 158 minutes, Tár, in theaters Friday, begins from an adversarial place, as if challenging the audience to endure it. The film ultimately rewards its audience, but makes them work for it.

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is an acclaimed composer. Through teaching Juilliard classes and conducting her Berlin orchestra, Tár explores her prickly personality and relationship with others.


The first bold move writer-director Todd Field makes is opening the film with a full end credits scroll. When the viewer already knows they're in for nearly three hours of movie, it shows utter contempt for their time to make them sit through a full list of crew credits (which play again at the traditional end crawl).

The film then shows Tár at a Q&A answering questions, which is a big case of telling instead of showing. Sure, she speaks articulately and evocatively, but wouldn't it be more effective to see her apply those principles in her music?


Things get more interesting at the Juilliard class in which Tár challenges student Max's (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) prejudice against classical artists. Tár is compelling as she provokes Max to explore the complexities of artists.

The Juilliard scene also unfolds largely in a single take that moves from the front to the back of the class. Max's constant restless leg adds to the anxiety of his conflict with Tár.

Tár has an assistant, Francesca (Noemie Merlant), who is more emotional about the business than Tár, but seems to understand her boss's needs. Tár can also play with her daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), so she's not all high-brow work.

Tár uses big words like misogamy and technical music terms as much to keep others at a distance as to articulate her thoughts. Comparing the process of composing to vulgar bowel movements almost makes her more pretentious than those $1 million words, like she won't even let scatological humor just be scatological.

We do see Tár fine-tune her orchestra. She's not as extreme as the conductor from Whiplash, but she is specific and demanding.

Tár eventually shows a bit of Tár's composition process. She noodles on the piano, so the audience gets to hear a song come together in real time.


Early in the film, Francesca brings news of the death of Krista Taylor, someone Tár knew, but the extent of their connection is only revealed later. Tár's relationships with Krista and Max backfire on her.

The precise bubble Tár constructed for herself unravels, and Blanchett has a field day portraying that unraveling.

Tár is a slow burn setting up all of those elements. When they finally do spiral out of control, it is satisfying to see Blanchett tackle those circumstances.

Nevertheless, Tár does not quite earn its length. Losing 20 minutes would tighten it up and make Blanchett's spiral more effective.

The sound design contributes to Tár's environment, too --.not only the orchestral music, but environmental sounds shock the audience in and out of Tár's world.

Tár ranks with Blue Jasmine and Elizabeth among Blanchett's most intense performances. If the unwieldy presentation and opening section of the film seems daunting, rest assured that is intentional and part of the process of getting to the depth of Blanchett's work.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.


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