TAR (2022)

October 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I seriously doubt that I’ll ever skip a Cate Blanchett movie. She’s won two Oscars and has been nominated six times. She’s consistently the best part of her movies, and often the best in a full year of movies. Here she stars in the first film in 16 years from the remarkable writer-director Todd Field. His two previous films, LITTLE CHILDREN (2006) and IN THE BEDROOM (2001) combined for eight Oscar nominations, and more importantly, established Mr. Field as a rare and unique filmmaker of great depth. Having Field reappear and cast Blanchett generated a heap of excitement from this film nerd.

Ms. Blanchett stars as Lydia Tar, a piano virtuoso, the conductor of the famed Berlin Orchestra, and a true musical genius. She’s a rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) from the classical field. Her music (and her life) is a quest to uncover/discover what the composer meant with each piece. Lydia is sometimes rough on her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), but frequently dotes on their young daughter … while otherwise living a relative selfish and self-centered life. We also see this true persona in how she treats her young assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), who quietly aspires to become a conductor, while efficiently keeping Lydia on track each day.

The film begins with “New Yorker” writer Adam Gopnik interviewing Lydia as a stage presentation in front of a live audience. It’s his introduction of the Maestra where we learn her background and the proficiency that has garnered her such respect (as well as jealousy and animosity). Throughout the film, many real musicians (past and present) are referenced, and that detailed research is alone enough to earn respect for what Mr. Field has accomplished here. The stress and laser-focus on Lydia as she prepares for the final symphony in her Mahler portfolio (his 5th). We witness the meticulous detail that goes into managing the music and musicians, and this leads to handling the dismissal of veteran who is slipping, and the addition of a brilliant young cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer). We are never quite sure if Lydia’s attraction to Olga is limited to her skills with the bow.

Of course, any perfectionist at the top of their industry is subject to backlash and criticism. Is Lydia abusive? Is she exploitive? It seems the answers may be affirmative, and likely what drives her art. It’s quite discomforting to watch as she covers her tracks after the suicide of a former pupil, but I’ll admit to a certain feeling of satisfaction as she verbally spars with another student over gender semantics … actions that of course come back to bite her.

Ms. Blanchett is fascinating and mesmerizing to watch. She is at the top of her game playing a perfectionist who is at the top of her game. However, it’s clear this film isn’t likely to strike the right notes with mainstream audiences. It’s an arthouse film about art, and thus is filled with dialogue and much less actual music than you might expect for a film about a world class Orchestra conductor.

Opens in theaters on October 21, 2022

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PARIS, 13TH DISTRICT (2022)

April 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Jacques Audiard is one of the filmmakers who has won my cinematic loyalty through his consistently thought-provoking and entertaining films. His five features since 2005 have all been excellent: THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (2005), A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), DEEPHAN (2015), THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018). This latest is a different kind of story for Audiard, and it’s based on the stories from animator Adrian Tomine. Audiard adapted the screenplay with Nicholas Livecchi, Lea Mysius, and Celine Sciamma (writer and director of PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, 2019). The result is a unique vision of modern-day love set in an area of Paris that is rarely featured in films.

Audiard gives us a REAR WINDOW-esque opening that lands on a couple evidently singing naked Karaoke. We are then informed, “It began like this.” Emilie (newcomer Lucie Zhang) is a tele-salesperson augmenting her income by renting out a room in her apartment … well, it’s her grandmother’s apartment, but she is confined to a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. Emilie wants a female roommate and Camile is the first to schedule a showing. Only Camile (Makita Samba) isn’t female. Instead, he’s a handsome teacher working on his doctorate, and since there is a spark between he and Emilie, she agrees to let him move in. The attraction plays out as you would imagine, right up until Camile slams on the brakes and informs a frustrated Emilie that he has no intention of being a couple, and soon invites another lady friend over for an evening of intimacy. The micro-aggressions between Emilie and Camile escalate, and soon he moves out.

Next we meet thirty-something Nora (Noemie Merlant, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE) who is excited (almost giddy) to be headed back to law school. It doesn’t take long for classmates to mistake her for a popular online sexy cam-girl named Amber Sweet. The mistaken identity and bullying cause Nora to drop out and return to her previous profession – real estate. It turns out the local office is being managed by Camile, who, disillusioned with teaching, is looking for a fresh start by helping out a friend. Nora sets the ground rules and the two maintain a professional relationship, right up to the point where they cross the line and become lovers.

Audiard shoots most of the film in black and white, which gives it the timeless feel of so many French romantic dramas over the years. The difference here stems from the sexual dynamics and interconnected stories and characters all within Paris’ 13th arrondissement. One of the terrific storylines has Nora cultivating a chat relationship with the same Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth of the English rock band Savages) she was mistaken for. Personal grief plays a role with two of the main characters, while a dark family secret burdens another. This emphasizes how we each carry the past and it sticks with us regardless of the path we choose. The film also reinforces how there are invariably contradictions in how we see ourselves and our actual behavior. These characters may engage in casual sex, though by the end, it’s clear each wants more than they are willing to admit. Things wrap up pretty neatly in the end, but the road travelled is a bit rocky.

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