Review: ‘TÁR,’ starring Cate Blanchett

October 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“TÁR”

Directed by Todd Field

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Berlin and New York City, the dramatic film “TÁR” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An internationally famous classical music conductor finds her life spiraling out of control when her past actions come back to haunt her. 

Culture Audience: TÁR” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Cate Blanchett, writer/director Todd Field and well-acted movies about powerful people who experience a scandalous fall from grace..

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in writer/director Todd Field’s “TÁR” makes it a psychological minefield of a drama. It’s an absorbing portrait of someone intoxicated by her own power and facing a reckoning that’s as unwelcome to her as a nasty hangover. Blanchett’s Lydia Tár character is a classical music conductor who has reached the top of her field, which makes her public downfall such a disastrous mess. Viewers can decide for themselves if this downfall could have been diminished based on how it was handled by the movie’s central character.

“TÁR” is Field’s first movie as a writer/director/producer since his Oscar-nominated 2006 drama “Little Children,” another movie about how a woman is affected by a sex-related scandal. Whereas “Little Children” told the story of a private citizen in a suburban U.S. neighborhood, “TÁR” is about a public figure who is an internationally famous entertainer. “TÁR” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and subsequently had premieres at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

In “TÁR,” Lydia fits every definition of a type-A personality who’s an overachiever. The movie’s opening scene takes place at The New Yorker Festival, where writer Adam Gopnik (playing a version of himself) is interviewing Lydia in a one-on-one Q&A in front of the audience. It’s a laudatory interview, where her accomplishments are listed like badges of honor: She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. Lydia is also a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute, and she has a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru.

At one time or another, she has been a conductor for all of the “Big Five” American orchestras: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Lydia is a rare entertainer who is an EGOT winner: someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She considers herself to be a New Yorker, and has a home in New York City, where she still visits on a regular basis. However, for the past seven years, Lydia has been living in Berlin, because she has been a conductor for an unnamed German orchestra.

Lydia, who describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” lives with her German domestic partner Sharon Goodnow (played by Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (played by Mila Bogojevic), who is about 6 or 7 years old. Sharon is a violinist in the German orchestra that Lydia conducts. It’s the first sign in the movie that Lydia has a tendency to blur the lines between her job and her personal life.

Lydia is a loner who doesn’t have a close circle of friends, so Sharon is Lydia’s closest confidante. Sharon knows a lot of Lydia’s secrets. However, Sharon eventually finds out that she doesn’t really know everything about Lydia. Two American men also have an influence on Lydia, and they give her advice, whether she wants to hear it or not.

Eliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong) is an investment banker and amateur conductor, who has financed a non-profit program called the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, which is led by Lydia. The fellowship gives apprenticeships and job opportunities to aspiring female classical music conductors in this very male-dominated field. Near the beginning of the movie, Lydia tells Eliot during a lunch meeting that she’s thinking that the program recipients shouldn’t just be one gender.

The other man who plays an influential role in Lydia’s life is her mentor Andris Davis (played by Julian Glover), who was her predecessor at the German orchestra that Lydia currently conducts. Andris was the one who recommended her for the job, although it’s made clear throughout the movie that Lydia’s talent is so highly respected and sought-after, she probably didn’t need to a recommendation to get the job. What started out as a temporary job for Lydia to be the guest conductor position at this German orchestra turned out to be a long-term, permanent position.

If viewers believe the narrative that Lydia tells people, one of the reasons why she and Sharon decided to settle in Berlin was to be closer to Sharon’s family members who live in the area. But as the story unfolds, it becomes pretty obvious that Lydia might have had a reason to avoid living in New York full-time. It turns out that Lydia has a “stalker” who lives in New York City.

Lydia’s French assistant Francesca Lentini (played by Noémie Merlant) knows who this “stalker” is, because this person has been sending obsessive and threatening email messages to Lydia. Francesca has permission to access these messages, because Francesca screens Lydia’s mail. Francesca is an aspiring conductor who greatly admires Lydia and considers Lydia to be her mentor.

Over time, based on the way that Francesca acts and what she says, Francesca seems to assume that she will be Lydia’s first choice if any big job opportunity comes along that Lydia can help Francesca get. Lydia expects unwavering loyalty from Francesca, but Francesca expects the same loyalty in return. There’s some sexual tension between Lydia and Francesca that will make viewers speculate if or when the relationship between Lydia and Francesca ever became sexually intimate.

Just like a lot of hard-driving, ambitious and accomplished people, Lydia is a perfectionist who is just as hard on herself as she is on other people. A very telling scene is when she is a guest teacher in a classical music class at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The students seem very intimidated by Lydia’s reputation for being merciless in her criticism, but she’s also full of praise for anyone who meets or exceeds her high standards.

During this class session, Lydia singles out a student named Max (played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist) and asks him, “What are you actually conducting?” Max is so nervous in her presence, one of Max’s legs is literally shaking as Max talks to her. However, Max isn’t so afraid of Lydia that Max won’t challenge some of the things that she lectures to the students.

For example, Lydia tells the students any great conductor or musician can find something to relate to in the music of classical icons Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven. Max disagrees and tells Lydia and the rest of the people in the room: “As a BIPOC [black, indigenous, or person of color], pan-gender person, it’s impossible to take Bach seriously.”

Lydia tells Max that she doesn’t know what BIPOC and pan-gender means, and her attitude is that she doesn’t care to know. She treats Max dismissively, like an ignorant young person whose opinions matter very little to her, because she’s the more experienced, older person. Finally, a fed-up Max gets tired of feeling belittled by Lydia, and Max walks out of the class. Before leaving the room, Max tells Lydia, “You’re a fucking bitch.”

In response, a stone-faced Lydia calls Max a “robot.” Throughout the movie, Lydia mentions that she dislikes it when people act like robots. During her lunch with Eliot, she says, “There’s no glory for a robot. Do your own thing.” Ironically, when Lydia’s world starts to come crashing down on her, she represses her emotions and turns to rigid routines (such as rigorous jogging and boxing) to cope, and thereby acts very much like a “robot,” in an attempt to tune out her troubles.

Lydia is under enormous career pressure when things start to fall apart for her. The German orchestra is preparing for a Deutsche Grammophon live recording date of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which will be a major accomplishment in her career. In addition, Lydia is working on writing an original classical piece. However, she seems to be having writer’s block, and she doesn’t really want to admit this problem to anyone.

While in Berlin, Lydia meets a Russian cellist Olga Metkina (played by Sophie Kauer), who is 18 or 19 years old. Olga acts like a star-struck fan with Lydia, who is flattered. Lydia also seems to be sexually attracted to Olga. Meanwhile, Olga seems to be aware of this attraction and makes it clear that she’s eager for any opportunity to work with Lydia.

“TÁR” is fascinating to watch for how it unpeels the layers of Lydia’s contradictory character that is capable of hiding a web of lies and secrets. Lydia can be charismatic and funny, but she can also be ruthless and cruel. She is a workaholic who doesn’t spend a lot of quality time with her daughter Petra, but Lydia quietly threatens the girl at Petra’s school who has been bullying Petra.

Lydia claims to be open to collaboration and hearing different ideas, but when anyone dares to question her ideas or decisions, she gets revenge in passive-aggressive ways. An elderly orchestra member named Sebastian Brix (played by Allan Corduner) finds out the hard way how vindictive Lydia can be. What happens to Sebastian sets off a certain chain events that will accelerate the scandal that could lead to Lydia’s downfall.

In telling the story of this complex person, Field also uses haunting flashback techniques that resemble a fever dream, where Lydia remembers things related to the scandal that threatens to end her career. Lydia also sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to random sounds, such as a metronome that seems to have started on its own. It further fuels the sense that Lydia is being haunted. How much of it is her own doing? As the tension builds and things get worse for Lydia, the movie’s cinematography (played by Florian Hoffmeister) and the music (by Hildur Guðnadóttir) become more foreboding, creating a sense that the proverbial walls are closing in on her.

The character of Lydia is so well-written and embodied with such realism by Blanchett, people who don’t know anything about the world of classical music might mistake “TÁR” for being a biopic based on a real person. All of the other cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as effective without Blanchett’s masterful performance. (Field has said in interviews that he wrote the “TÁR” role only for Blanchett.) It’s the type of virtuoso, top-notch performance that would make Lydia Tár very proud.

Focus Features released “TÁR” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Paris, 13th District,’ starring Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth

May 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paris, 13th District”

Directed by Jacques Audiard 

French and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Paris, 13th District” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four people, who are in their 30s and live in Paris, have lives that intersect as friends and as lovers.

Culture Audience: “Paris, 13th District” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about adults navigating complicated relationships.

Noémie Merlant in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The erotic-infused romantic drama “Paris, 13th District” uses a familiar formula of showing casual sex turning into love. The movie’s compelling performances and a few plot twists enliven a story that wants to be edgy yet sentimental. It’s yet another “singles who date” movie about two people in a “friends with benefits” relationship; one of them falls in love first with the other one; and both of them try to figure out what to do about it.

Adding to the complications in “Paris, 13th District” are the sexual and romantic entanglements of two other people whose lives are interconnected in some way to the would-be couple. The movie becomes like maze within a love quadrangle. And it’s a maze where some people might get lost and drift apart, while others find a way to each other. The “Paris, 13th District” director Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay from short stories by Adrian Tomine.

“Paris, 13th District” (which is named for the location where most of the movie takes place) is a film in black and white, which instantly gives it a classic and somewhat artsy look. “Paris, 13th District” is not “color blind” when it comes to its casting and storylines, because racial issues are definitely not ignored in this movie, where most of the sex partners are interracial couples. Immigrant identities are also not erased for characters who come from immigrant families.

With that being said, even though “Paris, 13th District” tries to look like it’s completely progressive and modern, the movie still falls into some stereotypical and old-fashioned formulas in movies about casual sex turning into love. One of the biggest stereotypes is the emotionally unattainable ladies’ man, who tells his sexual conquests up front that he doesn’t want to be in a monogamous and committed relationship, but one of his sex partners tries to change his mind anyway. Some people might like think that “Paris, 13th District” (especially the ending) plays it too safe, while other people might think the movie is too vulgar.

The four people who are part of the movie’s “love quadrangle” are all in their 30s, and they are feeling discontent about various aspects of their lives.

  • Émilie Wong (played by Lucie Zhang) is a talkative free spirit, who comes from a Chinese immigrant family, where she is considered an underachiever. Émilie has a science degree but works as a telemarketer selling cell phone services. Émilie works in a call center, where she sometimes breaks the rules when she thinks she can get away with it. Émilie (who identifies as bisexual or queer) lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her grandmother. In contrast to Émilie’s aimless life, Émilie’s older sister is a successful medical doctor named Karin (played by Geneviève Doang), who often scolds Émilie for being immature and self-centered.
  • Camille Germain (played by Makita Samba), the movie’s Lothario, is a high school teacher who quits that job to pursue getting his Ph.D. in modern literature. At one point in the story, Camille starts working at a real estate agency to earn more money. Camille has a fairly good relationship with his immediate family: Camille’s widower father (played by Pol White) and Camille’s 16-year-old sister (played by Camille Léon-Fucien), who wants to be a stand-up comedian. However, Camille doesn’t visit them as much as they would like because he seems to want to avoid being reminded that his beloved mother is no longer with them.
  • Nora Ligier (played by Noémie Merlant) is a loner with a vague background. She’s originally from Bordeaux, France. In the beginning of the movie, Nora has enrolled in a criminal law class because her dream is to eventually become a lawyer. However, Nora ends up working as an agent for a real estate company, which is how she meets Camille. Nora also goes through some harrowing experiences because she’s often mistaken for a porn actress who uses the alias Amber Sweet.
  • Amber Sweet (played by Jehnny Beth), who wears a blonde wig styled in a shoulder-length bob, looks so similar to Nora, they could pass for fraternal twins. Amber is the most mysterious person of these four characters. However, she eventually opens up and becomes close to someone in this group of four people. It’s not really surprising who ends up befriending Amber, but some things that led up to that relationship are not as predictable.

In the beginning of “Paris, 13th District,” Émilie meets Camille for the first time, because he has answered an ad that she placed to look for a roommate. When he shows up at her door, she’s surprised that Camille is a man, because she assumed from his name that Camille was a woman. Even though Émilie lives rent-free in her apartment, she has a secret scam going on where she gets a roommate to give her the roommate’s share of the rent, and she keeps the money. The movie shows whether or not Camille finds out about this con game.

In their first conversation, Émilie and Camille (who seem to be instantly attracted to each other) don’t waste time getting personal and talking about sex after some small talk about what they do for a living. Émilie asks Camille to describe his love life. He replies, “My parents aren’t laughing.” Then, he adds, “I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity. Nothing noisy or invasive for a roommate.”

When Camille asks Émilie about her love life, she sums it up this way: “Fuck first. See later.” Émilie also shows that she’s insecure about her physical appearance. Even though Émilie is already thin, she mentions that she likes to put Saran wrap around her body to “get thin.”

For Émilie, it’s an easy decision for Camille to move in with her. And they soon start having casual sex with each other. After just a week of these sexual hookups, Émilie grows very emotionally attached to Camille and shows signs that she’s falling in love with him. It makes him uncomfortable, so he tells Émilie that he doesn’t want to have sex with her on a regular basis anymore. “We have fun, but we’re not a couple,” Camille tells Émilie.

Émilie feels hurt and offended, but she tries to hide it by becoming standoffish to him. She tells Camille: “We need new rules. We share cleaning and food. And stop walking around naked.” As much as Émilie wants to pretend that she can handle these new boundaries, she becomes increasingly crabby and difficult. Camille starts casually dating a woman he works with named Stéphanie (played by Oceane Cairaty), who spends the night sometimes at the apartment. Predictably, Émilie gets jealous.

Émilie’s moodiness becomes too much for Camille, who eventually moves out of the apartment. But that doesn’t mean that he’s completely out of Émilie’s life. Camille and Nora end up working together. And because Camille is a ladies’ man, it’s not surprising what happens between him and Nora. Émilie (who eventually meets Nora) tries to move on from Camille by dating other people, but her mind is never far from thinking about Camille.

Meanwhile, Nora’s life collides with Amber’s when Nora goes to a nightclub wearing the same type of blonde wig that Amber wears in Amber’s porn videos. At the nightclub, several men start approaching Nora and treating her like a celebrity, by asking to take photos with her and being extra flirtatious with her. Nora is confused but flattered by this attention.

Nora later finds out why all these strangers acted as if she’s famous: Nora looks a lot like Amber Sweet when she wears the blonde wig. Nora has never heard of Amber Sweet until discovering that she’s an Amber Sweet look-alike, but she finds out the hard way that being mistaken for a porn star definitely has its down sides. Over time, Nora gets unwelcome and abusive attention when people think that she is Amber Sweet. It’s also eventually revealed that Nora and Amber both identify as queer or bisexual women.

One of the best things about “Paris, 13th District” is that the movie authentically shows how flaky, confused and desperate people can get when it comes to finding love and sex. The four central people in this story have a certain restless defiance that can come from people in their 30s who are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives, while other people in their age group are settling down with marriages, kids and careers. Émilie, Camille, Nora and Amber are not pressuring themselves to conform to society’s expectations, but they are putting certain pressures on themselves to find happiness wherever and whenever they can.

Émilie could have easily been written as a perfectly lovable ingenue to make it easier for audiences to root for her. But she’s often irritable, narcissistic and impatient, in addition to being someone who is capable of giving and receiving real love. She likes to think she’s independent, but she has the emotional maturity of a childlike woman who is very dependent on her family for financial support and approval. Émilie is a flawed but very believable character.

Zhang performs well in this role, while Samba’s performance as commitment-phobic Camille is also realistic. The roles of Émilie and Camille have better character development than the roles of Nora and Amber. Nora and Amber both have an intertwined storyline that seems a little too convenient and rushed into the plot toward the last third of the movie. Viewers never get to see any of Nora’s and Amber’s family members (it’s implied that Nora and Amber are estranged from their families), whereas Émilie’s and Camille’s family members are in the movie as integral to understanding Émilie’s and Camille’s personalities.

“Paris, 13th District” has some sex scenes that some viewers might think are a little risqué, but the movie doesn’t take many risks when it comes to a tired, over-used stereotype in movies about single people who are dating: A woman is always trying to get a man to commit to her. “Paris, 13th District” sacrifices aspects of Émilie’s free-spirited personality to make her sometimes look like a clingy shrew.

However, “Paris, 13th District” also makes a point of showing that many people are often full of contradictions. It’s a movie about people who appreciate and pursue the pleasures of sex, but they also use sex as a way to cover up a lot of emotional pain. And no matter what people’s attitudes are about sex, “Paris, 13th District” is essentially a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants to be loved in some way or another.

IFC Films released “Paris, 13th District” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 15, 2022. The movie was released in France in 2021.

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