Arts Review

Film Chronicle

Not the least of Tár’s achievements is that it’s a film about classical music that people in that industry can watch without cringing. Written and directed by Todd Field, the movie follows Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a conductor who has reached the top of her field thanks to talent, charisma, and canny political skills. Leading the Berlin Philharmonic (the zenith for a conductor), she has made the rare transition to mass awareness, becoming an EGOT and a media star in a way that has no real-life correlative today. Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s and ’70s is the closest model—and Bernstein is name-checked as Lydia’s mentor and inspiration. The entire film is full of real-life people, references, allusions, all remarkably accurate. And the depiction of backroom industry debates over classical funding, repertory, personnel and so forth is, with a few exceptions, gratifyingly on point. Field really did his research.

Courtesy of Focus Features.

The film begins with Lydia being interviewed for a New Yorker Festival event by the real Adam Gopnik. We follow her through encounters with donors, administrators, students, and see her at home with her wife Sharon (the brilliant Nina Hoss), who is the Berlin concertmaster, and their daughter. Lydia is confident, highhanded, passionate, never suffering fools. Although she wears tailored suits, she acts neither flagrantly masculine nor feminine. Gender seems of little interest to her; when she is asked about the difficulties of succeeding in a noto­riously male-dominated profession, she brushes off the question as irrelevant, as if it had never really occurred to her. She is treated with deference by her colleagues, particularly her timid assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant). She is, above all, a person who clearly relishes being in a position of great power, who thrives on control, and who has little regard for the needs and feelings of others. In a delicious early scene, Lydia confronts a young girl who has been bullying her daughter, striding up to the child in the schoolyard and menacingly whispering to her, “Ich bin Petra’s Vater” (I am Petra’s father). The child is suitably terrified.
Lydia is also out of step with the modern world’s suspicion of top-down power structures and with its foregrounding of gender and other identity-based politics. She is not woke, a fact brought home in an exaggerated scene in which she eviscerates a young Juilliard conducting student for his naively political rejection of the classical canon (one of the few slips in the film: even the most radical Juilliard student wouldn’t be so idiotic as to tell the world’s leading conductor he is uninterested in Bach because he is a dead white male). Lydia’s lack of awareness becomes a problem when her world starts to fall apart, due to what may have been an inappropriate relationship with a protégée who turned out to be unstable and committed suicide. Lydia gets caught up in a #MeToo nightmare, with press and social media playing their now customary roles. Crucially, Field never lets us know exactly what happened and how often it happened in the past (the accusations most resemble those leveled against the Broadway actress Alice Ripley, who allegedly groomed young women with quasi-romantic promises of friendship and career support, only to cut off all communication when she grew bored).
But Field is not really detailing contemporary generational wars nor the wages of cancel culture. Instead, his quarry is the precariousness and constructedness of all power relationships, particularly those amongst individuals. Lydia’s slow, steep unraveling is really a study in how people simply stop letting her control them. A series of poor judgment calls and circumstantial setbacks, some amusing and some horrifying, knocks Lydia off her pedestal, and, one by one, her assistant, her wife, and her colleagues all stop caring what she thinks. And when they stop paying her heed, Lydia’s power over them evaporates. In a telling late scene, she sits with a young protégée in the back seat of an airport-bound limo, and the young woman scrolls on her phone, paying no attention to an increasingly mortified Lydia, whose hubristic self-regard requires external attention to exist.

Some prominent women in the classical music business have chafed at the film’s premise that power corrupts regardless of gender. Lydia becomes toxic and narcissistic because people give her power and let her run with it. As soon as they stop giving her power, her toxicity becomes irrelevant, the barely audible buzzing of a harmless flea. But does that propensity vary by gender? Would women in positions of significant power be able to avoid the habitual pitfalls? It’s a case-by-case situation, of course, but I don’t think that Field’s point is ultimately about gender. In a way, putting a woman at the center of the story reinforces the idea that the problem is structural, not social. There is perhaps something inevitably problematic in the ultra-hierarchical configuration of classical arts organizations that are frequently driven by revered individuals. I’ve thrilled to brilliant performances by charis­matic conductors who bring flair, focus, and unique artistic insights to great works of music. But the cult-like reverence with which major conductors are treated may be unhealthy for classical music in the long run.
Field’s control over the pacing and tone of Tár is masterful. Every scene feels authentic yet infused with a slowly growing sense of dread. Lydia’s lunches with Andris (Julian Glover), the retired previous music director, for example, have just the right sense of gossipy warmth. But her interactions with the musicians feel increasingly strained. And at home, she begins to display signs of paranoia, reacting with fearful sensitivity to ambient noises. The film starts as an earnest PBS docu­mentary but then progresses from baroque melodrama to full-on gothic horror; a final violent eruption might or might not be interpreted as a hallucination, a muddled revenge fantasy, or a psychic break. Blanchett is, as always, stunning, going wherever the script takes her, no matter how crazy, with utter commitment. You simply can’t take your eyes off her fascinating face. She’s the closest thing we have to a Bette Davis-style Hollywood star: hyper-intelligent, idiosyncratic, somewhat hammy, luminous but with an edge. And if her physical conducting isn’t techni­cally correct, it’s thrilling to watch.

With a score by the important new composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, Tár is naturally full of wonderful music. Lydia is preparing to record Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and the photo shoots for the CD cover, where she strikes a Claudio Abbado-inspired pose, are hilariously accurate depictions of the iconography of “high maestro genius.” In the second half of the film, Lydia becomes obsessed with Olga, a newly hired young Russian cellist, and schemes to give her the solo in a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto. (The excellent young cellist Sophie Kauer plays her first movie role.) At the end of a rehearsal, Lydia announces that the solo will be chosen via audition, and this was the moment in the film that felt most false to me: a prominent opportunity like that would never be given to an untenured member of the orchestra over the principal cellist, who looks blindsided, and it would certainly never be casually announced in front of the entire orchestra. Perhaps one could argue that Lydia’s huge gaffe is indicative of her psychological unraveling. Certainly, Field’s careful attention to verisimilitude leads one to think that this baffling moment is intentional, indicating perhaps a turn toward surrealism, or at least a more heightened approach to plot and character.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

That very carefully controlled balance of tone, the willingness to engage the dreamlike, even the gothic, while still maintaining coherent character psychology and plot consistency, was once a defining characteristic of highbrow film (think Fellini, Bergman, Mizoguchi), and Field’s work, in its serious, monumental, hermetic tone, feels very much like a throwback to that mid-century aesthetic. The Irish writer/director Martin McDonagh plays with similar variations of tone but to vastly different effect. His modus operandi is to pull back the layers of cozy warmth enveloping small communities, exposing violent anger, deep sadness, and tribal recriminations within the everyday conversations. His approach is darkly comedic, his dialogue loamy, and his characters vivid to the point of grotesquerie. Operating with equal skill on the screen and on the stage (his Hangmen was a highlight of the last Broadway season), he might be accused of being a one-trick pony, but it’s a wonderful trick.
McDonagh’s latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin, finds him in peak form. Set in a tiny village on an island off of Ireland’s west coast in 1923, toward the end of the Irish Civil War, McDonagh’s story centers on Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), an amiable animal herder who lives with his spinster sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and whose days consist of doing a little work, communing with his beloved donkey Jenny, and then hanging out at the pub with his best friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson). This pattern is broken when, at the start of the film, Colm decides he simply doesn’t like Pádraic anymore and will no longer spend time with him. Colm, a fiddler, has artistic pretensions and feels he no longer has the patience for Pádraic’s affable dullness. He wants to live his life with more meaning, more purpose. Pádraic is baffled, then devastated. And the film proceeds with a beautifully rhythmic push-and-pull between the two men, as the rest of the villagers look on with fascination.

It’s a McDonagh film, so there will be blood, but much less than you might fear. Mostly he uses spurts of gruesomeness as baroque accents, deliberately heightened actions that push the movie toward grim fable and allow for extremes of feeling and expression. Yet the more fabulous moments of the story do not go unremarked upon by the characters. This might be a parable, but it’s one existing in the real world. And what McDonagh accomplishes is nothing less than a fully realized explication of the underpinnings of the Irish “Troubles.” Pádraic and Colm are two once-united friends who lose the ability to understand each other, who reach a point of unresolvable difference which results in cycles of increasingly unmotivated retribution (the villagers are conspicuously uninvested in either side of the ongoing Civil War). McDonagh grounds this metaphoric standoff in personal depression. Both Colm and Pádraic live with some version of it, clinical in Colm’s case, situational in Pádraic’s. At confession, Colm’s priest speaks warningly of the “sin of despair.” The despair caused by centuries of poverty and oppression in Ireland could indeed be read as a form of national depression.
The Banshees of Inisherin is, all the same, a laugh-out-loud movie, albeit about incredibly sad people. The daily interactions of the villagers are richly funny, and funniest of all is Farrell, without whom the film would not work. His completely transparent, open acting lets us enter and reside in Pádraic’s earnest soul, without judgment or distance. The movie doesn’t take sides, but it does center Pádraic, and, despite his naivete and his occasionally exasperating denseness, you can’t help but feel his moral purity. He is an inherently “nice” person, and McDonagh’s screenplay spends a good deal of time considering that very quality. Is “niceness” important? Useful? Lasting? The supporting characters play a key role, particularly Siobhán who seems like the only sane person on Inisherin and who tries to maintain a veneer of niceness even as she drifts into lonely despair. Condon’s performance is outstanding, as is that of Barry Keoghan as Dominic Kearney, the intellectually challenged son of the local brutal police officer (the “village idiot” in the parlance of that time and place).

In the past, McDonagh has been overly schematic, too reliant on plot twists and on sensational shocks. His previous film, the acclaimed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, did not completely work for me, despite the excellent performances. It was a wild ride, full of incident and color, a trenchant disquisition on the underlying racism and sexism in American life. But it felt like a movie about the Midwest made by someone who had never been there. It also once or twice lost control over that critical balance between the heightened and the believable. Banshees is a much more successful film, partly because McDonagh is on more familiar geographic terrain, but also because his approach is more nuanced, more cognizant of the line that he can approach but not cross. The film’s pacing is surprisingly gentle, its voice almost never raised, and yet it contains as much wild extremity of emotion and humor as anything McDonagh has done before.

Courtesy of Janus Films.

Speaking of donkeys, six of them collaborate to play the title role in EO, a Polish film from octogenarian director Jerzy Skolimowski. Winning the Prix du Jury at Cannes last spring, this 86-minute curiosity follows the sweet, placid EO (named for the sound he makes) who is liberated from a Polish circus and, thanks to a series of accidents, ends up wandering the countryside, encountering humans and other animals who are alternately cruel, kind, dangerous, helpful, violent, and indifferent. He is ultimately trucked to Italy, where he momentarily finds himself in the villa of a Countess (Isabelle Huppert, of all people). His final destination, tragically, is an abattoir, a place that he goes to as dutifully and untiringly as he has every other destination on his journey.

EO is in no way a feel-good animal fable for the whole family. While there are moments of tenderness, particularly between EO and his young circus partner Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), the film focuses on the often-brutal conditions faced by animals in both the natural sphere and in the society of humans. At the same time, Skolimowski goes to great pains to avoid anthropomorphizing EO in any way. The filmmaker’s project is not to make us see the world through EO’s eyes, nor to bring us inside his thoughts and feelings, but rather to make us feel his experiences. And feel them we certainly do; a few scenes are very difficult to watch. But despite Skolimowski’s unflinching aesthetic and his skillful avoidance of kitschy animal movie clichés, EO is a film that takes a sentimental view of the place of animals in the world—one, I hasten to add, that few would disagree with. Apart from household pets, animals are treated by most humans as expendable, unfeeling, valuable only as labor or as food. There’s no question that Skolimowski wants us to fall in love with EO—the constant closeups of those soulful eyes do the trick almost instantly—and to look with horror at his fate as depicted in the final minutes of the film, which unfortunately suffer from overstatement. EO argues for the abolishment of any sort of cruel treatment of animals, an idea that few would reject in theory, but that most have trouble fulfilling in practice given that much of that cruelty is conveniently invisible in daily life.

Courtesy of Janus Films.

The film is, of course, made in the shadow of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece, Au hasard Balthazar (recently ranked the 25th greatest film of all time in the 2022 edition of Sight & Sound’s decennial poll). Bresson, the most austere and spiritual of great filmmakers, follows the gentle donkey Balthazar through a series of tribulations that are almost like stations of the cross. Like EO, Balthazar encounters moments of kindness and forms an attachment with a young woman. And like Skolimowski, Bresson places his four-legged star at the center of the film’s subjectivity, albeit without sentimentality or false assumption of human-like motivations. But Bresson is a classicist, favoring unshowy photography, little to no scoring, and performances low key to the point of somnolence. Whereas Skolimowski is an expressionist, utilizing lurid color filters, pounding music, and jagged, broad performances. EO is a polemic; Au hasard Balthazar is a prayer. While there are many thematic and structural similarities between the two films, the impact of Balthazar is more profound and lasting. I found EO engrossing and moving, but it’s not something I could imagine returning to, whereas Balthazar is a movie for a lifetime.

EO, like Balthazar, belongs to that genre of “slow” or “difficult” films, beholden more to avant-garde cinema than traditional Hollywood notions of entertainment. The aforementioned Sight & Sound poll recently proclaimed the greatest film of all time to be Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, undoubtedly the quintessential exemplar of “slow” and “difficult.” Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece dethroned two Hollywood movies that had been in that spot for the last six decades: Vertigo in 2012 and Citizen Kane for the five decades before that. This triumph of the challenging over the accessible reflects ongoing evolutions in serious film criticism but has little impact on film as a business. More people probably see a Steven Spielberg film in one weekend than will ever see Jeanne Dielman. Spielberg is an easy target for serious cineastes, thanks to his stratospheric commercial success and his privileging of feel-good emotions. Most film scholars acknowledge his technical skills but lament his banal, optimistic sensibility. He leans into gauzy wonder rather than truly earned joy and avoids anything that would make an audience truly uncomfortable. What’s worse, as far as the auteurists are concerned, he seems to lack the troubled soul that often defines great creative artists. Interviews with Spielberg reveal a smart, jovial, and rather everyday man.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

His latest film, The Fabelmans, written by Spielberg along with current writer-of-choice, Tony Kushner, attempts to dig a bit deeper into the director’s psyche and to unearth the sources of his art. Although the names are changed, the film is almost completely autobiographical, detailing the protagonist’s obsession with movies and filmmaking from a young age and showing how this avocation ultimately helped him through his parents’ divorce. It’s a lovely film, full of rich performances, but it never really goes to places of intense pain or morally complex self-examination, such as we’ve seen in other autobiographical films by great directors, like The 400 Blows, Amarcord, and Roma. There may just not be much for Spielberg to mine; whatever lingering pain he may feel from his parents’ breakup is downplayed in the film, sad but not biting.

Still, it’s a captivating if discursive, slightly overlong film. Like many stories rooted in a real person’s upbringing, it’s really several narratives in one: a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a disintegrating marriage, and a comedic dissection of social attitudes, particularly anti-Semitism, in 1960s California. Young Sammy Fabelman (initially Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and then Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager) loves to make movies with his 8mm camera, a practice that delights his artistic mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) but is merely tolerated by his kind but practical engineer father Burt (Paul Dano). In Sammy’s journey, we see the sources of much of what has preoccupied Spielberg as a filmmaker: the yearning for familial security, which gets uprooted when something more important comes along (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), the commitment to Jewish issues and causes (Schindler’s List, Munich), the hunger for popular approval through the exercise of elaborately creative camera setups and special effects (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park), even the delight in messing with viewers by manipulating montage (Jaws, A.I.).

Sammy’s journey is the movie’s throughline, but the relationship between Burt and Mitzi, complicated by their best friend Bennie (a wonderful Seth Rogen), is the movie’s emotional center. The outlines of the characters are archetypal: troubled mom, clueless dad, secret lover. But the details are arrestingly personal. Mitzi is fervent and complicated, loving but unhappy. Williams’ luminous performance fills in all the necessary shadows and glints of light and grabs the audience tightly. Mitzi is a frustrated concert pianist, and we see Williams play several classical pieces during the film quite convincingly, although the notes are actually those of Joanne Pearce Martin, the Los Angeles Philhar­monic’s pianist. Dano, also excellent, keeps more at a distance, his good-natured bewilderment reflecting his inability to understand his wife and children and their needs. You can feel Spielberg refusing to judge them both, but also unwilling to get angry at them. Even Bennie comes off well by the end of the film. Spielberg reserves his fury for a viciously anti-Semitic high school student who bullies Sammy mercilessly and who receives his comeuppance in the most Spielbergian way possible: caught on camera in a humiliating situation.

The Fabelmans feels like a summation, but it’s also a confession. At a moment of grave family crisis, Sammy suddenly has a brief vision of himself filming what is happening, and we realize that at a certain level he has already started distancing himself from his family, turning their experiences into grist for his artistic mill. Spielberg here acknowledges that his way of coping with life is to put it in front of a lens and to step back behind the camera, safe and in control. He will always be subconsciously framing what is happening around him for maximum impact. And to this end he is perhaps even more his father’s son (the practical technician) than his mother’s (the passionate artist). The Fabelmans is a forgiving, compassionate film, but also one that reflects its maker’s detachment from the emotions and actions that require forgiveness and compassion. In this way, it is a true representation of Spielberg’s artistry, an honest reflection of his enormous strengths and human limitations.