The reputation that Todd Field has accrued in the last decade or so seems to me to be based mostly on hot air. Field acted in Eyes Wide Shut, made two well-received literary adaptations (which were Kubrick's stock-in-trade) and has been attached to a few more over the years that never came to fruition. The one that did more than anything to create an aura of genius around his name was the rumor that he was developing Blood Meridian with Scott Rudin. Literary sensibilities, or to be less generous, literary pretensions, are dangerous things for filmmakers to have because most directors, formally speaking, are no Stanley Kubrick.

Field made some suspect choices in source material for his first two films. In the Bedroom comes from an Andre Dubus story called "Killings" which consists mostly of one scene, a long, suspense-filled drive that in the film concludes a narrative of small-town jealousy, desire, murder, grief, and revenge. Tom Perrotta's novel Little Children riffs heavily on Madame Bovary to tell a story of contemporary suburban alienation. Its film adaptation resembles Flaubert less than Sam Mendes. Field is clearly brilliant, and his new film provides strong evidence on this point, but these are literary subjects that resist his efforts to skirt cliche.

His new film TÁR declares itself as unconventional right away. I read several reviews that noted the long scenes in the first hour: the opening credits that roll in reverse for about five minutes, followed by conductor Lydia Tár engaging in a long Q&A with The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik. This conversation, like many of the dialogue scenes that follow, is airless and expository, full of specialized and technical references to the milieu of classical music that the script is steeped in.

As Vadim Rizov said in his review, specificity is a good in itself, yet I also wondered if these bold choices by Field were kind of stupid ideas. It does take an awfully long time for anything like drama or dialectic to develop here, though thankfully not too long, and the combination of this opening plus the extended credits nearly get one to The Mike D'Angelo Line. Gopnik's presence and the dull glibness of his questions certainly impress something about the hermetically sealed chamber of prestige in which Lydia lives, an idea that the film will continue to reinforce before eventually deconstructing. Yet Field also adds a fantastic joke at the beginning of this scene — a visual gag, an edit — that I thought did the trick in a fraction of the time; Lydia's assistant Francesca mouthing along to the biographical intro as Gopnik recites it, the self-generated Wikipedia summary of a well-toned publicity machine regurgitated by an ambassador of elite journalism.

Airless is certainly the word for the first hour — probably the entire first half — of TÁR, in which Lydia soliloquies endlessly, usually in dialogues that are actually monologues. But in the film's third of these dialogue setpieces something exciting develops. Her visit to a Juilliard class and her confrontation with an anxious but direct Zoomer student, shot in one take, brings all the movie's ideas into a single explosive scenario. I don't begrudge Cate Blanchett the Oscar she will win for this movie and the way she inhabits Tár's staggering self-regard, condescension, and mock empathy in this scene is the most enthralling piece of acting in a movie that unfortunately still has two hours to go.

This scene also helped me to persuade myself that the Gopnik opening did, perhaps, serve a larger aesthetic idea. Eventually we'll learn that this unseemly classroom confrontation, which we viewed in real time, has been chopped up and circulated on social media deliberately to show Lydia in the most unflattering light possible. In the script's words, there's something au courant about TÁR, which in its best passages communicates the numbing experience of living in a hyper-mediated reality that flattens everything — generational conflict, suicide, Mahler, #MeToo, Bach — into content.

For most of the movie I still couldn't let down my guard, the wariness I felt, which is not specific to Field but a reaction triggered by this kind of austere filmmaking, heavy on the master shots and oners, which says seriousness without developing anything like grammar or style. What would happen to the movie when Field had to direct a scene that amounted to something besides Lydia performing? It's a mix. Richard Brody's review stirred up some conversation online this week. I read his piece as par for the course — he's a great critic, although his readings often depend on ungenerous interpretations. He spots what are often real flaws in films and then wedges them open wide enough to drive his argument through. For ex:

"The film looks at any social station and way of life besides the money-padded and the pristinely luxurious as cruddy, filthy, pathetic."

I think this is not what the script is saying about the world outside Lydia's sphere but this misreading is made possible by the deficiencies in Field's style. Too many filmmakers underestimate the difficulty of incorporating the tonality of horror into their work for brief interludes. Adam compared the language of Lydia's guilt-fueled nightmares to Aronofsky, which isn't a bad pull, especially considering the recurring device of the neighbors at Lydia's second Berlin apartment, a subplot that veers perilously close to that filmmaker's brand of smug grotesquerie. The more generous reading Brody doesn't consider is that there's an idea in the movie about the kind of everyday pain and indignity that Lydia's station doesn't allow her to experience or acknowledge. Eventually the movie suggests that there's a biographical reason for her terror of lower-class squalor, although if you're in a bad mood you can squint and see Lydia as Hillary Clinton, shocked at the sight of someone's normal kitchen.

That revelation about Lydia's personal history arrives like a last-minute exhibit for the defense. Brody also broadly accuses the movie of flattering Lydia by obfuscating whatever her real crimes might be and playing into reactionary ideas about cancel culture. Again, a misreading, but it's not wholly inaccurate to say that Field elides certain details not only to preserve his character's subjectivity but to stack the deck in this argument. I think it's arguably true that to make a film about this “cultural moment”, the insertion of a queer woman as the subject represents a necessary strategic move to help the viewer suppress some of their own baggage and preconceptions. But the unwillingness to elaborate on these scandals betrays the everything-is-content idea, and it smacks of a coyness that doesn't fit Field's project.

The picture accelerates somewhat in its final hour, but Field doesn't suddenly become a director of farce; rather, where the first half's languorous scenes reflected Lydia's control of her own narrative, once the ground shifts beneath her she no longer has the floor. There are a few camp, funny moments in this movie helped along by Blanchett's absolute commitment as Lydia unravels. "Girlboss There Will Be Blood" isn't a bad summary, or elevator pitch. Paul Thomas Anderson has been accused by some skeptics of using grand gestures like Daniel Plainview's eruptions of violence to disguise weaknesses in his material. Lydia has a similar outburst in the climax of of this film, which is an amusing spectacle that Blanchett again carries off. Thinking about that accelerated pacing, though, in tandem with the emphasis on punchlines and ironic gestures, the ellipses of the first half which belonged to Lydia's subjectivity now seem to be devices and dodges by a director who wants to yada-yada certain details.

This finale eventually brings Lydia down to earth, in a wonderful concluding scene that depicts a purgatory, or hell, with a wit and conciseness the movie has rarely displayed. Still, even admiring its wicked final moments, TÁR winds up a shaggy-dog joke told by a largely humorless artist, which isn't invalidating so much as it is an escape hatch. Ending on a big laugh frees Field from needing to clarify anything else about his conceit, whether Lydia is a victim of her own hubris, of a social media sensibility run amok, or of a faceless organism of international celebrity that has now dumped her like a toxic asset. Whatever else this ending accomplishes, it leaves my skepticism of Field intact. My appreciation for this movie rests on a knife's edge, depending how generous I'm feeling; a churlish, unbecoming frame of mind that is one of this film's key themes, so I at least have to consider that the joke’s on me.

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