In Review: 'TÁR,' 'Decision to Leave'
Todd Field's first film in 16 years and Park Chan-wook's latest byzantine mystery are both multi-layered triumphs of subtlety and style.
Dir. Todd Field
TÁR has entered the discourse.
Or, to put it another way, TÁR has complicated the discourse, suggesting all the ways it falls short of a reality that’s knottier and more irreducibly human than the conversation ever gets. Here’s the story of a famous artist whose arrogance and predatory behavior finally leads to a public reckoning that was perhaps a long time coming. In that, it intersects with the #MeToo and “cancel culture” discussions, but it blocks out the noise, often literally, to focus on the fullness of an immensely flawed person whose monstrousness is tangled up in the power, entitlement and creative myopia of her work. A tweet thread wouldn’t cover it. An Op-Ed wouldn’t, either.
By description, TÁR sounds like a reactionary screed, like Michael Crichton’s Disclosure repurposed for the age of Harvey Weinstein: What if acts of sexual exploitation were engineered by a woman instead of a man? But that’s thankfully not the film Todd Field has written and directed, which burrows itself so deeply into a single character’s perspective that it defies all generalization or facile politicking. Following 2001’s In the Bedroom and 2006’s Little Children, this is only Field’s third feature in 21 years, a pace that encourages comparisons to Stanley Kubrick, who directed him as an actor in Eyes Wide Shut. The common thread is the treatment of provocative, potentially lurid subject matter with a keen moral seriousness. His films may lack pulp, but they’ve got plenty of juice.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability
In a career-best performance—all the more astounding given the career—Cate Blanchett brings passion, imperiousness and brittle vulnerability to the role of Lydia Tár, a conductor who’s more of a household name in Field’s cinematic world than the one we currently occupy. Her résumé, offered by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) in a Q&A before an audience of admirers, is sterling to put it mildly, including an apprenticeship with Leonard Bernstein, an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) in her trophy case, and positions as maestro before the world’s greatest orchestras. Now leading the Berlin Philharmonic, which she’s preparing to lead through Mahler’s 5th symphony, Lydia is at the peak of her notoriety, with an upcoming memoir (Tár on Tár) ready to grace the bestseller list. But as the expression goes, the bigger they are…
… the harder they fall. As Lydia prepares to add more feathers to a cap of peacock plumage, Field patiently collects signs of unease under the surface—tremors that the maestro, by dint of her ivory-tower entitlement, is the last to feel. Her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) regards her with equal parts admiration and resentment, and Lydia finds her so essential that she actively sabotages Francesca’s attempts to advance her career. Though Lydia lives with Sharon, the first violinist (Nina Hoss), and their young daughter Petra, it’s something of an open secret that she uses her position to “mentor” attractive female protégés like her latest charge, a Russian cellist (Sophie Kauer) named Olga. These hairline cracks in Lydia’s sterling facade start to spread quickly, however, when a suicide overseas raises questions bout her relationship to a former student.
Much like the similarly Weinstein-adjacent drama The Assistant, albeit on a much larger scale, the genius of TÁR is its fixed perspective, which limits the audience’s experience almost entirely to the world as Lydia sees it. Or doesn’t. The same focus that allows her to deconstruct Mahler to the tiniest detail—at one point, she orders the trumpeter to play backstage to get the distanced sound she wants—prevents her from noticing the maelstrom that’s developing around her. Of course, she assumes that she’s insulated from consequences, as most powerful people do, but that insulation cuts both ways, exposing her lack of self-awareness and a deep moral turpitude. Field implies persuasively that Lydia’s flaws cannot be disentangled from her brilliance; she’s a servant to her narrow impulses and expects to be accommodated.
Blanchett masters all the technical, actorly things you might expect from a role like Lydia—the graceful transitions from German to English, the sweeping (and delicate) movements of her arms and body as she conducts, the real tickling of the ivories in her apartment. But there’s so much more to this performance, which seems specifically tailored to Blanchett’s aristocratic air yet swings from moments of sinister passive-aggression to raw bursts of emotion. Field lets many scenes play out at much greater length than expected—a feature the film has in common with In the Bedroom—and the effect is to have the audience carry many thoughts (and questions) at once, without overemphasizing any point. (The most shocking act of the film is photographed from a marked distance.) We simply have to live with Lydia as she lives with herself—and for herself. It’s a long journey down a steepening slope.
TÁR is currently showing in limited release.
Decision to Leave
Dir. Park Chan-wook
It takes a little squinting to recognize that the Park Chan-wook who directed Decision to Leave, a supremely elegant riff on noir motifs generally and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo specifically, is the same guy who scandalized the festival circuit two decades earlier with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. This is certainly the same guy, a vibrant sensualist with a yen for ornate convolutions of plot, but his reputation as a shock artist has been curbed significantly, replaced by an interest in private undercurrents of desire. Intense passion and emotion are still the animating forces of his work, accompanied by a peerless sense of style, but Decision to Leave puzzles quietly over the mysteries of human behavior and our capacity for self-deception.
Here, Park fiddles with the archetypical noir premise of an investigator who falls for the woman he’s investigating, which clouds his judgment over her presumed innocence. The femme fatale in this case is Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the conspicuously young wife of a man found dead below a craggy mountain face. Did he fall off the edge or was he pushed? That’s the question that haunts Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a detective so renowned for his fastidiousness that he forces his younger deputy to strap into a harness and trace the man’s descent in reverse, so they can get a sense of his trajectory. In the apartment he occupies in the foggy area during the investigation—his wife, Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), waits for him in their coastal home some distance away—Hae-joon keeps a wall of crime scene photographs from cases he hasn’t solved. They seem to be a contributing factor to his insomnia.
One source of suspicion toward Seo-rae is her seeming nonchalance about her husband’s death, though Hae-joon will come to learn that she holds her feelings extremely close to the vest. Besides, the widow does seem to have a solid alibi in her duties as an elder-care nurse. Though the case grows cold, Hae-joon’s interest in Seo-rae intensifies, which deliberately calls to mind the voyeurism and obsession at the heart of Vertigo, another fog-choked thriller, but Park doesn’t stop there. Seo-rae isn’t a passive object of desire, but a master manipulator who stokes the fire between the two of them while remaining at a teasing distance that shrouds her true feelings.
Lest you worry that Park has streamlined his plotting, however, Decision to Leave adds a second case that links up to the first, and requires plenty of sorting out from Hae-joon and the audience alike. While the film doesn’t have the explicitly perverse charge of Park’s other work, there’s a degree to which Seo-rae wants to be investigated, and invites the intrusion that Hae-joon makes into her life, even after she’s seemingly been exonerated. There’s a touch of romance in the way they probe each other’s secrets and vulnerabilities, and that’s where Park throws his emphasis, rather than on the increasingly sticky details of the plot. It’s not as immediately gripping as his previous work, but it lingers like perfume.
Decision to Leave is opening in limited release tomorrow.
Decision to Leave sounds fantastic.
reading your review of Tar made me look up Little Children. you seem to have liked it, Scott, (you gave it a B), but the plot summary of it really makes it sound hollow.
Very excited for both these movies, though I don't know how anything can live up to The Handmaiden. That film is equally parts excellent and nearly impossible to recommend without giving a lot of caveats. ("Hey coworker! I think you'd really enjoy this movie with explicit lesbian sex scenes, BDSM, and grooming! It's really good!")