For the meaner among us, the best scene in GoodFellas is the one in which Henry Hill beats the face off the guy who has just molested his girlfriend. None of us approves of vigilante violence. But, within the safe proscenium of a movie, we are allowed to enjoy aggressors getting even worse than they deserve.
Cate Blanchett’s greatest moment in this sleek opera of decline – initially incremental, then precipitous – sees Lydia Tár, first woman chief conductor of a major Berlin orchestra, approaching the apparently cowed child who has been bullying her adopted daughter.
[ Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, has already stirred up Oscar buzz and ruffled culture war feathers ]
After threatening to “get” her, Tár adds: “If you tell any grown-up what I just said, they won’t believe you, because I’m a grown-up.”
The thrill could hardly be more illicit. She’s merely telling the child off. It works. But she is using the most sinister strategies of the serial abuser. What are we to think of this creature?
In comparison, the audience’s relationship with Henry Hill was pretty straightforward. Of course we disapprove of this accomplice to murder, but, for an hour or three, we permit ourselves to guiltily ride along in his passenger seat. Since Tár’s triumphant premiere at the Venice Film Festival, much of the world has longed for less ambiguous verdicts on its eponymous protagonist.
Todd Field’s tremendous film is not exactly about cancel culture. But there are opportunities for the easily provoked to jump on board one bandwagon or another. Opportunities are, however, not the same things as invitations. Here is a work of art set at an unfashionably equivocal angle to contemporary discontents.
Field, director of the less grandiose In the Bedroom and Little Children, begins the film in deceptively oleaginous form. We meet Lydia Tár on the stage of the Lincoln Centre, where she is being interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (playing himself). The film seems, at this stage, at home to the myth of The Modern Genius as defined by the Awards Industrial Complex. She did this. She did that.
Having won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, she is entitled to the Egot acronym. She dresses, eats and loves accordingly. A self-described “U-Haul lesbian”, Tár inhabits an enviably chic apartment – as evocatively grey as the Berlin exteriors in late winter – with concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss). If we hadn’t absorbed a few off-key hints in the opening scenes, we could be fooled into expecting a celebration of virtuosity at its most suave.
The film’s already much-discussed pivot has Tár teaching a class at the Juilliard School. One of the students explains that he objects to JS Bach because of that composer’s unlovely treatment of women. She ridicules him mercilessly. He brings up his status as a “Bipoc transgender person”. People who had yet to see the film decided that Lydia Tár – or occasionally “Blanchett” – was either a raw monster or a based, anti-woke warrior. Field’s screenplay teases by later revealing Tár’s genuine malignity before, in a stunning coda, apparently wondering whether society is too absolute in its reaction to such transgressions.
None of this would be worth chewing over if Tár were less persuasive in its (why not?) orchestral sweep. The middle body of the picture, shot impeccably by Florian Hoffmeister, takes on the quality of an oblique ghost story as, struggling to prepare a performance of Mahler’s Fifth, she finds her fragile carapace creaking and cracking.
There are voices in the woods. A terse melody sticks in her head. As events progress, Blanchett moves from near-robotic insouciance – an empress among dung gatherers – to a hand-wringing, paranoid Lady Macbeth. The role is tailored to the actor’s familiar haughty strengths, but her performance is no less compelling for that.
The social provocations are ultimately secondary leitmotifs in a work that strives first to make a fully rounded and fully angled fictional character from wisps of influence. They do, it seems, still make them like this.
Tár is released on Friday, January 13th