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Dan Webster reviews “Tár”

To achieve success, some of us follow a simple formula: Fake it ’til you make it. And as a life script, this tends to work well enough. The problems come when we take things too far – namely, when we begin to believe the lies we tell about ourselves.

This is the trap that Lydia Tár falls into, she being the title character of the new movie – simply titled “Tár” – written and directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett’s Tár is famous, ultra-famous if you will, one of those individuals who has risen beyond her chosen profession – that of orchestra conductor – to become a household name. Besides being a conductor – newly appointed as the first woman to hold that position at the Berlin Philharmonic – Tár is a pianist, a teacher, a composer and an author.

In fact, she’s one of a mere handful of people who have attained EGOT status, signifying somebody who has won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards (the current number of such individuals in real life being 17).

When we are introduced to her, Tár is being interviewed by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik (played by Gopnik himself) on a stage before a live audience. Tár answers Gopnik’s questions on a variety of topics, though their conversation always returns to music, about which she is both knowledgeable and opinionated.

And, we learn as the film goes on, she’s also egotistical, not to mention more than a little duplicitous.

But all that comes later, in hints and asides and brief moments of anxiety, such as when Tár is awakened in the middle of the night by a mysterious clicking metronome. Or when we catch a brief glimpse of a nasty message on her phone. Or the facial expressions cast by her assistant Francesca (played by the French actress Noèmie Merlant), inscrutable as they may at first seem. Even when Tár receives a supposed gift that, on opening, she realizes is a book that she then regards with horror before ripping out the title page and cramming the whole package in a trash bin.

Field presents us with all this as we watch Tár move through her life, spending time in her stylish Berlin home with her live-in lover and concertmaster (played by Nina Hoss) and their adopted daughter Petra (played by Mila Bogojevic). Or flying to New York where, in a conducting workshop at the illustrious Juilliard School, Tár upbraids a student – not unreasonably – for dismissing the work of Bach simply because he can’t identify with him.

Correct as she may be, Tár alienates not just the Bach scoffer but at least one other person in the class, who records the encounter and then posts a heavily edited version online – one that casts Tár in the least favorable light.

And that’s not good, because Tár – whether by obsession or hubris or a blend of both – is not doing herself any favors. For one thing, she wants to phase out an older assistant conductor. For another, she casts her eye on a new, attractive cellist (played by Sophie Kauer) and connives to bring her on board. She alienates Francesca. Most damningly, though, she avoids answering the many desperate messages that a former protégé has been sending her.

And when that situation comes to an ugly head, Tár – no matter what heights she has attained – is headed for a fall. As we know from current American politics, when lawyers get involved, matters can get ugly fast.

Throughout all this, Blanchett skillfully navigates a delicate balance. Yes, her Tár is eminently flawed. But she has good points, too, not just her defense of what she sees as a reverence for tradition but also the love she shows for her daughter. In Blanchett’s capable hands, Tár – caught up in her self-delusion –becomes as complex a creation as, say, a movement of a Mahler symphony.

And as with a number of real-life artists in all areas, the way Field presents her begs the question: Can we ever separate the art from the artist?

More important, should we even try?