Wednesday 18 January 2023

Discord: "Tár"

"Is Cate Blanchett good, or is she just tall?"
- Billy on the Street (Billy Eichner), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S02E09

Last year's She Said was the rubberstamped Hollywood response to several years of #MeToo discourse: a film drawing on (and underlining) heavily fact-checked reporting on lamentable events. It was a film engineered to elicit one response - a regretful shaking of the head - at every turn leaving us in no doubt whatsoever as to what its position was in relation to its onscreen predator-in-chief. Todd Field's much-vaunted Tár is something else entirely: a phantasmagorical riff on similarly bad behaviour that - as you've doubtless heard by now - fair revels in being troubling, complicated, even (gulp) problematic. Most problematising of all, in a film directed by a middle-aged straight dude: that its monstrous centrepoint, laying waste to the minds, bodies and souls of young women everywhere, is a big old lesbian, the now near-mythical figure of classical conductor Lydia Tár, played by the scarcely less mythical figure of Cate Blanchett. That's not the only element here that appears designed to rub sensitive viewers up the wrong way. Field elects to put his end credits upfront, the better to cut to black on a crashing note of diminuendo; he opens with a ten-minute conversation that lays out the movie's key themes while gesturing towards at least one pitfall (seeming intolerably gabby and gassy); and then, for a further two-and-a-half hours, he stalks a character who is brilliant but fundamentally unrelatable through a world of gleaming, mocking monochrome, the screen giving off all the warmth of Berlin on a wet January afternoon. If the big picture doesn't get you, the details will: for starters, that title, with its unexplained raised baton of a fleck, is fucking annoying to have to type out on a regular basis. Welcome back, then, Uncompromising High Art, in the form of a film that would rather walk the tightrope of public opinion than any predetermined party line on exploitation and abuse in the creative industries.

That's the good news on Tár: it's undeniably risky, and it's not immediately pandering to anyone. Of course, one of the risks it therefore incurs is that you and I aren't going to get along with it - much as nobody in the film, even those who could conceivably claim to be Lydia Tár's nearest-and-dearest, really gets along with our tyrannical anti-heroine. Tár is so busy providing a vision of Quality Cinema that it simply doesn't give a fig if you find it too much, too long, too highbrow, too up itself, or politically incorrect; it doesn't even seem to care too much if an audience turns out for it. (Which I guess is one response to widespread consumer indifference to the cinema in this post-pandemic moment: go cooler, loftier and snootier still. Put live broadcasts from the Met in seven of the Odeon's screens, and let Lydia Tár run wild in the other three.) Did I hate Tár? No - but I must confess to getting fidgety from a surprisingly early stage, and emerging a little bemused as to why such a standoffish and pointedly chilly artefact should have inspired some of the year's warmest critical prose. We critics are no strangers to going against the grain, of course, and pride ourselves on our ability to stake out and defend ever more perverse positions. (The tendency has only been exacerbated in the era of Film Twitter, where each day's winner is he or she who arrives at the most extreme position on the most arcane of titles.) Still, it strikes this particular observer as curious indeed that many of the best reviews of the year should have gone to the film that presents as the hardest to actually like.

In the spirit of understanding: maybe it's an appreciation for the elevated level of difficulty needed to pull this kind of thing off without terminating careers - as if the relentless rough-and-tumble required to cling to Field's chosen high bar merited some rare combination of Nadia Comăneci and Opening Night-era Gena Rowlands. To these eyes, alas, Blanchett remains as remote and robotic a presence as Meryl Streep used to be before she loosened up; it hardly helps that she's been paired with a script that sounds like artificial intelligence has been let loose on the less penetrable corners of the New Yorker archive. "The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity," Lydia grandly proclaims to one of her classes; she's lecturing, but even her off-the-cuff comebacks take the form of lines like "very punkt/contrapunkt". Who talks like this? If Tar began to remind me of 2013's Blue Jasmine, it was only unhappily: both films are the work of creatives less engaged with recreating credible patterns of human speech and interaction than they are with building a shrine to The Blessed Cate. I don't think Blanchett can make all of this script's BS work - she just makes it seem taller, tossing off Tárian epithets in German and Mandarin. (And the judges go wild.) Either way, the supporting characterisations suffer for it; nobody else gets a look in, or a word in edgeways. As Lydia's assistant, Noémie Merlant has her hair clamped back so tightly it possibly counts as a prosecutable sex crime in its own right; and as the notional Mrs. Tár, even the mighty Nina Hoss seems perilously underused. Nothing is allowed to challenge the Tár supremacy; her downfall, when it comes, is entirely her own doing. Her relationships with anybody else on screen are less significant in Field's eyes than her relationship with herself and the camera: it's All About Cate, finally, which is clearly all that some critics want.

Still - whatever its underlying ideology, and whatever it wins for its leading lady over the weeks ahead - it makes for narrow, ungenerous art; it's never thicker than a tightrope, and its virtuosity veers on the phony, all theory and technique detached from the real. It's one clever touch to have Lydia Tár, mistress of sound, brought low by a succession of ugly noises (screams in a park, an apartment doorbell, the ring of a mobile phone) - it's a neat conceptual hook. Yet Field and Blanchett can't make this play with sound involving, surprising or affecting the way Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton - the fun Blanchett - did in last year's Memoria; we're always being kept at some remove, left to watch a series of only vaguely defined misadventures befall someone who leaves the entire world cold. The horror-thriller aspect - highly strung woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown - doesn't grip as it should because it takes ninety full minutes of Lydia being Lydia to wind up to it. (Its gestures in this direction - unmoored shots of Lydia filmed sleeping, supposedly ambient footage of otherwise boring rooms - suggest Field has been watching a lot of Michael Haneke.) Look, I'm fine with American movies making big and tough asks of the audience again - I've spent most of the past few years pleading for something like this - but asking us to spend two hours 40 around a character we barely believe in and never care about strikes me as beyond the pale. Give me the genial pleasures of Prime Video's Mozart in the Jungle, or a more recent streaming hit about a difficult woman that came with abundant, quantifiable gags, better tunes, frankly better vibes, and a surer sense of what constitutes a rewarding evening's entertainment. Tár is Hacks for snobs.
Tár is now playing in selected cinemas.

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