Rated R. In English and German with subtitles. At the AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner Theater
Writer-director Todd Field’s first film since his critically acclaimed 2006 effort “Little Children,” “Tár” tells the story of a fictional classical music superstar Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett in a dazzling tour de force). Tár, who is introduced at a function by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker in opening scenes, is openly lesbian, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, has conducted the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic. She’s an EGOT. She’s working on a book entitled, wait for it, “Tár on Tár.”
Tár makes a brilliant speech before a worshipful audience about, among other wide-ranging musical subjects, Mahler and “the 5,” Mahler’s wife Alma and her relationship with future husband Walter Gropius. Tár’s assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) seems overworked and stressed out on a level with the Julia Garner character in “The Assistant” (2019), an instant red flag.
Someone named Krista, a former student, is sending unstable and desperate texts through Francesca. Tár cannot be bothered to respond, another red flag. At an unspeakably expensive restaurant. Tár has lunch with a colleague named Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), Tár and Elliot speak in a lofty musical language without pause or misspeaking. They sound like actors in a play or a commercial. Is this supposed to be realistic? Blanchett delivers verbal arias – half of them in German – to match the music Tár makes. Elliot begs to see one of Tár’s performance scores. She refuses. Offhandedly, she drops a reference to Jerry Goldsmith’s innovative score for “The Planet of the Apes” (1968).
When in New York, Tár stays at the Carlyle, of course, and moves in NPR circles. But she actually lives in Berlin, where she is the first woman to lead the philharmonic. She lives in a beautiful flat with her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who also happens to be Tár’s first violin. They have an adopted daughter named Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who is wise beyond her years. Blanchett speaks German when conducting in Berlin. She brings Tár and her tics to life for us. She does this so well, it is shocking when Tár begins to fall apart. Tár is about to get tarred, if not feathered, Greek tragedy-style.
She schemes to arrange for a young, beautiful Russian cello player named Olga (Sophie Kauer) to play the lead in Elgar’s Cello Concerto in place of the orchestra’s veteran woman player, who is devastated. On her regular run in the park, Tár, hears a woman screaming. Is it real? Or is it Krista, the cello player? “Our only home is the podium,” Tár observes when she isn’t regally calling for her matcha. Is it possible Lydia is really a Linda and from rural America, where a hillbilly brother still lives?
In terms of production and performance, “Tár” is first-rate. But as a story, it is depressingly predictable and transparent. Hoss, a brilliant, acclaimed actor, get little to do except have “flutters” and look nervous when Tár gazes at Olga. Field, who played pianist Nick Nightingale in “Eyes Wide Shut” and has addressed revenge killing and pedophilia in his work, is attracted to hot-button topics, in this case sexual shenanigans by people in positions of power. But what are we to make of this tale of a homosexual woman genius who has reached the heights of her profession only to be caught up in a scandal that could drag her down and destroy everything she has accomplished? The film’s ending will invoke Brando, crocodiles and a podium of another sort.
(“Tar” contains profanity and brief nudity)