TÁR: Kate Blanchett gets stuck in it.

Ah, the sweet freedom of playing a character with absolutely no redeemable qualities.

Tar would have been a great name for Kate Blanchett’s character in that Thor movie. She was oily and black and hot and definitely not good for the planet (Asgard in that case).

But that was a superhero movie, a silly lark they’ll likely exclude from the reel that plays when Blanchett receives her lifetime achievement Oscar. You could argue that she plays some version of an all-powerful being in 90% of her roles, so Todd Field, the writer and director of Tár, lets her pave her relentless path through a narrative more fitting to a real-life Hela.

She is Lydia Tár, a symphony conductor of such astronomical talent that it takes the movie’s entire opening to list her accomplishments (she even has an EGOT!) via an interview on stage at a New Yorker forum. Blanchett’s characters almost always have a whiff of arrogance, but there’s never been a script that’s allowed her to lean into this to the extent she does here, and her all-in embrace of the pretentious, dismissive and completely unlikeable Lydia is mesmerizing.

This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, which surrounds Lydia’s cutting intelligence with a world so haughty and culturally rarified that it often becomes a parody of itself. Whether that parody is intentional or not is one question of many that makes this film’s point hard to understand.

For example, while teaching a seminar, Lydia cuts down a student’s work with a remark along the lines of “God, that’s worse than the venison sausage at L’Auberge.” Is this pretentious screenwriting meant to comment on Lydia’s affectations, or is it writer/director Field showing off that he has a library of insidery tidbits in his head bigger than all of Wikipedia.

The thrust of the drama follows a #metoo theme, with the twist being a powerful woman using and abusing other women, emotionally and sexually. The ballsier question to ask concerning this subject matter – what exactly constitutes sexual abuse when both parties are consenting adults – is not explored. We are given no details of Lydia’s relationship with the young woman whose suicide results in Lydia’s professional blackballing, other than that Lydia blackballed her when the woman started to expect Lydia to help her career in exchange for their sexual relationship.

Lots of works, from The Fountainhead to Whiplash, have looked at the idea of genius excusing questionable behavior (separating the art from the artist), and forced us to really think about it. At the start of the film, Field teases that he’s going to do the same. When Lydia is teaching the seminar at Juilliard, a non-binary BIPOC student expresses disdain for Bach’s music because they claim the man was a misogynist. Lydia argues with forceful intelligence against dismissing great historical and artistic achievements because the author’s past behavior has been deemed unacceptable under contemporary standards. When the student storms out and calls Lydia a bitch, the message is that the student’s wokeness is both immature and performative.

What follows this is a slow and relentless take down of Lydia for, again, an act of abuse we are given little detail about. This turns a narrative that was introduced as a legitimate debate into a one-sided argument that Lydia’s type of person – a brilliant and arrogant artist who draws in sycophants and takes advantage of opportunists – deserves to have their legacy wiped away.

‘What goes around comes around’ may be a satisfying storyline to some, but it’s a pretty lame take-away when you have an amazing performer like Blanchett at your disposal. And a real wasted opportunity when we so need to explore how to move through the fraught cultural and political climate around wokeness.

Predicted Oscar nominations: 4

Actress, Original Screenplay, Score, Sound

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