Tár’s bold opening act

Tár is one of my favorite movies from 2022, thanks to a herculean performance by Cate Blanchett alongside Todd Field’s bold direction. For Field, this is only his third feature as director and his first in sixteen years. With such sporadic output and little connective tissue to his past work, I find his contributions to Tár fascinating to dissect. The film is Kubrickian in its clinical detail, subtle yet purposeful, messy and enigmatic, with an open provocation for the audience to get on board with the film’s unique wavelength or head for the exits.

Nowhere is that challenge clearer than in Tár’s opening thirty or so minutes. Like the fictitious composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett), the opener is bold and uncompromising in a way that feels tailor made to rankle some audiences. On an otherwise sparsely attended weeknight screening, I saw several moviegoers visibly impatient, sighing and shifting audibly in their seats.

Before I dive into that opening, it’s essential to set the larger context: Tár is a nearly three hour movie for which most is a patient “slice of life” character study. We learn about Tár (Blanchett) as she works through her musical projects and interacts with her wife and colleagues. Except for a guest lecture at Juilliard where Tár criticizes a student, onscreen conflict is mostly muted for the opening half or so of the film.

Little conflict, “slow” subject matter, and a long runtime are all elements that could, on paper, bore or otherwise alienate the audience. I’d imagine many directors would try and hook the audience early with a loud opening event. Maybe Blanchett as Tár conducting the real life Dresden Philharmonic in a sweeping musical number. Or a flash forward to some future major conflict to shroud the rest of the movie in mystery.

Field does none of this. He opens the film with a brief shot of an image on a phone for which the audience has no context. We then see almost all of the movie’s end credits played as opening credits. A tribal song by the artist Elisa Vargas Fernandez plays as accompaniment, and the credits’ typography is a vaguely futuristic sans serif. Finally, the movie transitions to a New Yorker festival interview between Tár and the writer Adam Gopnik playing himself. Tár and Gopnik chat about the composer’s musical projects and influences for what feels like well over ten minutes with minimal editing or camera cuts.

Field’s sequencing speaks magnitudes. The phone image – a live video of Tár captured by someone offscreen – is unsettling. The shot foreshadows a paranoid tone that creeps into the film’s margins over time. Placing most of the film’s credits up front underscores filmmaking as a collaborative art form. Indelible film performances aren’t just thanks to great acting but also indebted to makeup artists, costumers, editors, and many others. The credits also remind us how a conductor like Tár relies on her orchestra and others for success. However, as we see onscreen, she sidelines or ignores many in her pursuit of greatness.

I read the credits’ tribal song and more futuristic text as intentionally defying audience expectations. Where’s the classical music? Why isn’t a warmer, more “classic” font used for the crew members? Field is signposting that we’re in a different, more unorthodox style “biopic.” He’s also rewarding those trained in subtle details because the song playing gets referenced in the New Yorker interview between Tár and Gopnik minutes later.

That interview is a logical place to get the audience up to speed on Tár’s back story, which isn’t exactly novel; first act exposition dumps are commonplace. However, many other films do so through shoehorned conversations and overly blunt dialogue. For Tár, there’s nothing forced about the situation. A New Yorker live interview is precisely the kind of place Lydia Tar would thrive in: an artistic space that’s sophisticated, intellectual, and unafraid to dive into high levels of depth and detail. It’s also a chat that locks down the movie’s pact with its audience: we’ll take our time to unpack an incredibly nuanced, complex, and perfectionist character. Hang on and pay attention.

Other directors might put two people onscreen to debate the meaning of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for a few seconds as a simple shorthand for a character (they really know about classical music!) or as a humorous bit (this is so pretentious!). Field instead packs the Mahler segment of the Goptnik interview with enough detail to provide insight into Tár’s character on multiple levels. For instance, Blanchett’s tone of voice and hand gestures show a character in total confidence. Tár’s analysis of the romance between Mahler and his future wife, Alma Schindler, hints at Tár’s ultra-independent worldview.

The New Yorker interview concludes, the audience applauds, and Tár moves on. The next hour or so helps round out the titular character, but the film rarely deviates from the visual and sonic template set by the opening thirty minutes. A brief shot of a phone, opening credits, and an extended interview between two onscreen characters is all it takes for Todd Field to set the audience on their way. It’s exquisite work.