Mommie Tár-est

Image: The New Yorker

There is a thought provoking and urgent story to be told about modern cancel culture. Tár, more’s the pity, is too busy navel gazing to tell it.

Given the sumptuous diversity of our species, someone, somewhere in time, has no doubt felt an urgent need to see Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest told from the deranged perspective of Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford. They need look no further than Todd Fields’ egomaniacal camp Tár.

Tár arrived in US cinemas preceded by serious hype. Elusive auteur Todd Fields’ long-awaited third outing and a potential vehicle for Cate Blanchett’s third Oscar. It’s a marketing dream. Until you watch it.

On occasion, Hollywood is graced with a drama leaning so hard into the mantle of its own genius it falls into a slapstick alternate reality. Enter Cate Blanchett as fictional EGOT-winning conductor/composer Lydia Tár. The movie opens with Tár being interviewed by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. An otherworldly conversation ensues. Designed to convince us of Lydia’s genius, it mostly cements her as a pretentious blowhard, Kim Kardashian but make it Mahler. It’s the first of the litany of misfires to come.

Cut ahead to scene three. We see this stable genius bully a self-identified BIPOC pansexual student in a masterclass at Julliard. The student doesn’t like classical composers and doesn’t connect to Bach because he was a misogynist. The scene set for the most contrived drag-off ever, blissfully unaware, Blanchett rips into an epic monologue, and it’s the moment Tár jumps the shark. A rapid-fire script of $10 platitudes, including a drawling Blanchett declaring herself “a u-haul lesbian”, sensationally ups the stakes and you’d be forgiven for letting out a quiet chuckle at the ridiculous fantasy playing out before you.

“You must sublimate yourself!” Tár declares as the wounded snowflake student flounces out in a huff. It has all the grace in foretelling of Dunaway scraping away at the tiles pronouncing “Helga, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”

Cate Blanchett plays fictional conductor Lydia Tár, a mentee of Leonard Bernstein and an expert in the works of 19th-century composer Gustav Mahler. It’s through her understanding of Mahler’s work that Fields’ script attempts to excuse his character’s bad behaviour.

The mess climaxes with an inevitably cancelled Tár vomiting outside a cheap brothel she had been told was a massage parlour. Tár has been relegated to conducting a youth orchestra playing the score of video game Monster Hunter at a southeast Asian Comicon screening. The absurdity of the scene would be hilarious if the movie wasn’t attempting to convince us this is a fate worse than death. The underlying conclusion: yes Tár spent her life manipulating, exploiting and abusing young women, but is this really where she deserves to be? The idea of an admission of guilt, an apology, perhaps growth, never occurs to her. Why would it.

Blanchett stares balefully at her audience of millenials in cosplay. All that’s missing is a massacred rose garden and Blanchett quivering out “Tina! Bring me the axe!”

Once you absorb what’s happening, it doesn’t take much of Tár’s 2-hour 38-minute runtime for you to fall beyond the reach of its ravings. Pitched a few degrees differently it has all the trappings of a badly aged 1940s musical comedy. Tár tells the story of Marie Antoinette, only instead of being guillotined, she’s exiled to a cake shop in Saigon.

The New Yorker called Tár regressive. The film critic Amy Taubin called it racist. Mostly it’s a giant nonsense. Bless poor gullible Hollywood for handing credibility to a project sight unseen. “Fields and Blanchett with a movie about cancel culture, against a backdrop of Mahler’s symphonies, how sophisticated and daring!” It’s a mistake Hollywood has made before. Oscar winner Faye Dunaway in a movie about child abuse written by the daughter of legendary actor Joan Crawford…

After the marketing department at Paramount realised Mommie Dearest was bringing in gay audiences laughing at Faye Dunaway’s outlandish delivery, they changed the slogan to “It’s a Mother of a movie!” Tár will avoid this ignominious fate. Ironically it’s a level of misogyny Hollywood isn’t capable of anymore. They’d get cancelled.