FYC: TÁR for Best Picture

During the pandemic, Focus Features gave Todd Field the option to write about anything for his return to cinema after a 16-year break. Within a 12-week time frame, Field delivered a draft to the studio. In response, he received no notes and total creative freedom. Field describes his experience making the film as “the most creatively free I’ve ever felt.”

With a prompt to write about anything he wanted, Field decided to explore the structure of power but not through a common point of view of a white man, but a character that has been in his mind for over ten years: Lydia Tár.

Lydia Tár is “one of the most important musical figures of our era”. She began as a conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra and through years of dedicating herself to the music, she works her way up to be the conductor of the Berlin Orchestra. On top of that, she is only one of fifteen people in the world to gain EGOT status. Tár is a champion of bringing more females into the music scene by setting up conducting fellowships. She is about to have the biggest moment in her entire career by completing the Mahler cycle with a single orchestra.

By the time we finally meet Lydia Tár, she has successfully been cemented into the zeitgeist of the music world. Todd Field does such a superb job in creating a fluid timeline of the fictional life of Lydia through his use of details that lead many audience members to believe this is a true story about a real person.

Choosing the world of classical music as a setting for a story of power abuse is not the obvious choice to explore a timely topic. To Field, an orchestra is a perfect embodiment of power that is shaped as a literal triangle with its conductor at the top. It is a simple idea that really sells the point of Lydia Tár being at the top of this world. No one is above her. Along with following the idea of power abuse, the film is a commentary on identity and who we are when we lose the thing we best identify with. For Lydia, that thing is music, and without that, who is she? This is a part of her DNA and she will always try to find an opportunity to do the thing she loves no matter the conditions, which explains the film’s last moments.

During the film’s opening Q&A sequence, Lydia Tár states “But time is the thing. Time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me. I start the clock.” Field brilliantly crafts a lived-in world so the audience can exist in the headspace of the famed conductor as they endure the journey of TÁR. The immersion into her world starts at her most powerful. Tár’s soul projects a cold brutal world onto the screen; she conducts time and space as if they are music to shape her influence.

To achieve the illusion of real-time, scenes are long and crisp but as the story takes up it starts to speed up and suddenly these long scenes are fractured creating a sense of disorientation for the viewer. The audience begins to find themselves in the middle of Lydia’s unraveling as the camera frames tilt and shift. With a heavily-edited viral video, accusations of grooming young women, and losing her foundation, Lydia’s world is crumbling in seconds. Revolving the narrative around time is effectively paired with editing and cinematography that captures the mind of the monster the audience is trapped in, because “time is the thing.” To precisely craft a controlled story that takes bold risks is a testament to the master filmmaker Todd Field.

Without Cate Blanchett, Lydia Tár would have never become the cultural icon she is today. Field and Blanchett first met years ago to discuss a film he was working on with Joan Didion. Sadly that film never came together, but that one meeting ten years ago left such a great impression of Blanchett in Field’s mind that he wrote the role of Tár for her. In multiple interviews, he has stated how this movie would not have been made if she wasn’t on board, and after watching the film, there is no one better to play the girl boss conductor.

This role showcases what a seasoned actor Blanchett is because of the controlled material; she must maintain composure the entire time even when her character is spiraling. It would’ve been easy for her to play Lydia in a screaming and crying manner seen so often with this tortured artist material, but Blanchett remains composed the entire time. With Field’s writing and Blanchett’s performance, they never try to tell the audience how to feel about Lydia, but give them all the details to piece together their own opinions of the artist. Blanchett’s beautiful manipulative nature transcends the screen as the audience watching her downfall becomes enamored with the untouchable genius.

On the surface, TÁR looks like the typical Oscar-bait contender that gets awarded every year, but it is the sudden shift from a character study to a supernatural thriller that makes it one of the most clever and original films of recent. It follows a recent trend seen this year of films (mostly centered around women) using supernatural or mythical tales to explore their haunted memories and trauma. TÁR is more than just a story about cancel culture and proving it exists. It is the unexpected narrative changeup that almost feels like a blink and you’ll miss it on the first watch (a second watch is definitely recommended).

The third act is where the supernatural elements Field has planted along the way are the most noticeable. The tone almost feels gothic horror during this section of the movie because it feels so separated from the character study we just sat through but at the same time feels connected to the little details revolving around the spirits haunting Tár throughout the film as it leads down darker paths. Field places the audience in Lydia’s mind from the beginning, putting us in touch with her psyche which is haunted by all the horrific decisions she has made to get to the top.

What is exactly Lydia haunted by? The redhead sitting in the audience for Lydia’s talk with Adam Gopnik: Krista Taylor. Not much is revealed about Krista until she dies and Lydia begins to hear noises all around her. A young cellist Olga also enters Lydia’s life and plays a pivotal role in changing the film’s focus from cancel culture to the ghosts of an abuser. At this moment, Lydia drives Olga home, the conductor follows the young woman into the building where she hears a woman singing and then falls as she flees the scene. At home, as she reads to her young daughter Petra, Krista is seen back of the frame sitting in the room. These moments make the audience ask what is real and what is not. These questions are never answered but it is apparent the story has taken on new layers following Lydia’s injury resulting in a switch from a crisp camera to a shaky Steadicam.

One of the most chilling moments of the film is after Lydia’s cancellation she finds herself in a massage parlor where she stands in a room with a selection of young women forming a triangle. The irony of this scene is that it places her back in a simulation of her previous years of seducing and fighting for power amongst the powerless. When her eyes land on woman number 5 she sprints out of the room to throw up. Lydia now exists in a world where she lost it all and her Mahler’s Fifth never came to fruition.

Todd Field may as well be Lydia Tár in his ability to perfectly conduct editing, cinematography, acting, and score together in symphony to create his well-tuned masterpiece. With its mixture of supernatural elements and commentary on power, TÁR would be a timeless best picture choice that exhibits the experimentation of filmmaking and shows the Academy’s ability to start embracing genre film for its most prestigious award.

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