Telluride Film Festival Reviews: “Tár”, “Empire of Light”

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When Cate Blanchett took the stage Saturday night for her Telluride Film Festival tribute, right after the screening of her amazing new film, “Tár,” the audience must have had a bit of a laugh. Most viewers who get a post-screening Q&A with Blanchett — and there will likely be a few in the coming months — will find themselves in a similar position. In “Tár,” Blanchett plays a world-famous classical conductor named Lydia Tár, and one of her opening scenes is a captivating and revealing long conversation with New York writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) , held in front of a live audience. .

It’s an instantly captivating sequence, fearless in its musical and intellectual rigor, immersing us in the workings of Lydia’s formidable mind. We drink in his black-suited elegance and sense his initial cautiousness, though any anxiety quickly dissipates as Lydia, a lecturer as assured as she is a conductor, begins to talk about her art, her love for Mahler and Bernstein and his experiments. study, perform and conduct music around the world. Her synapses fire like crazy and her hands take on an inventive life as she describes her role in not only keeping but create time, molding and sculpting it with a level of imagination that audiences will only detect as a sublime piece of music.

“Tár”, the third and best feature film directed by Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”, “Little Children”), keeps its time beautifully. The film is a fascinating two hours and 38 minutes long; I didn’t want it to end. It’s the story of a magnificent monster and its very public downfall, but what makes that downfall so compelling is that it happens so gradually and springs from such quietly intimate roots. The story unfolds in carefully orchestrated moves, so to speak, and each of those moves takes us a little deeper into Lydia’s highly influential and rigidly hierarchical corner of the music world.

This world encompasses New York, where she teaches at Juilliard, and Berlin, where she is conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It is also there that she makes a kind of home with her companion, Sharon (Nina Hoss), herself an accomplished violinist, and their young daughter. “Tár” may be a work of fiction, but everything rings meticulously true, from the impeccably cast musicians playing in Lydia’s orchestra to the illicit passions and hidden rivalries only she has the power and cruelty to foster.

Cate Blanchett in the movie “Tár”.

(Main Features)

It’s Field’s first film in 16 years (and his first original screenplay, after two adaptations), and it unleashes what feels like nearly a decade of pent-up, pointed observations on the politics of the art world. , the tensions of academia, the debate over cancel culture, the calculations of #MeToo, and, on a not unrelated note, the ascendancy of women in creative and professional spaces long dominated by white men. And in this space, Lydia refuses – arrogantly, exasperatedly and at times heroically – to pander to what she sees as the prevailing liberal orthodoxies. Hailed as the first woman to lead one of the greatest orchestras in the world, she nevertheless dismisses gender inequality as a significant obstacle to her success. And in one of the film’s most chillingly electrifying scenes, she forcefully berates a BIPOC student who challenges Bach and other acclaimed white male composers, defending the canon with a reactionary ferocity that’s nonetheless rooted in a deep understanding of the music.

This scene and others raise the ever-familiar question of whether one can or should separate the art from the artist – a question of particular importance to Lydia, whose habit of sleeping with her students becomes a secret more and more secret. I say it as the greatest compliment when I say that Lydia Tár herself doesn’t extricate herself so easily from the artist playing her, in the sense – and only in the sense – that we’re watching a genius embody a other. At the risk of indulging in more musical metaphors, his work here feels genuinely, breathtakingly symphonic in its component arrangement. To play Lydia, Blanchett learned to speak German, play the piano, and conduct music, but the brilliance of her work transcends the conventions of study, practice, and research. It takes an actor who can seem, as Blanchett does, both a gifted orchestrator and a finely tuned instrument in the same case.

“Tár,” which Focus Features hits theaters Oct. 7, arrived at Telluride on a wave of rave reviews that began last week at the Venice International Film Festival, where Blanchett’s performance was immediately named the star of the show. an early favorite for an Oscar. Both festivals, along with the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, have long been reliable and coveted launch pads for future award-winning performances. Telluride itself has hit on a few recent Oscar winners, including Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), Renée Zellweger (“Judy”) and – speaking of separating art from artist – Will Smith (“King Richard”) .

Predictably, the Oscars typewriter was in full swing after the Telluride world premiere of “Empire of Light,” a well-acted dud from director Sam Mendes (“1917,” “American Beauty”). Most of the excitement swirled around the much-acclaimed Olivia Colman for her performance as Hilary, a lonely, depressed woman who works as a duty manager at a cinema in the English seaside town of Margate. The story spans the early 1980s – ‘The Blues Brothers’, ‘Stir Crazy’, ‘Being There’, ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘Raging Bull’ will all grace the marquee at some point – and will focuses on Hilary’s romance with a new employee, Stephen (an excellent Micheal Ward). Their relationship is presented, easily, as a bond between two individuals who are both out of touch with their environment: Hilary for reasons that will soon become clear, and Stephen because he is a black man living in a city, a country and a deeply racist moment.

Two people watch fireworks from a balcony in the film "Empire of Light."

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the movie “Empire of Light”.

(Projector images)

Both lead roles are backed by a supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, Tanya Moodie, Tom Brooke and, as a veteran theater projectionist, a very good Toby Jones. But they’re all abandoned to varying degrees by a storyline that has many parts coming together like oil and water and concession soda. It’s a tale of pent-up mental trauma and racist violence spilling out into the open, issues that Mendes carefully swept under the rug in a grand love letter to film, as well as movie theaters. movie theater. The director, who is making his debut as a solo screenwriter, described this film as his most personal work, one born out of the pandemic and the accompanying despair of not being able to reunite with others in the public spaces, very inclusive theaters.

I am as sensitive as anyone to the sentimental nostalgia for my favorite art form and its endangered public places. (“Empire of Light,” a Searchlight Pictures release, hits theaters Dec. 9.) That said, my own taste is for films that don’t treat anti-black violence as a vehicle for emotional and psychological deliverance from people. ‘a white woman – a narrative twist that is frankly a gross insult to both characters. And while Colman peels back Hilary’s layers of grief and rage with all the ferocity and subtlety one expects from an actor of his caliber, even she can’t sell the gleefully beaming pivot asked of him in an endless sequence in which “Empire of Light” essentially becomes the 80s equivalent of Nicole Kidman’s AMC commercial.

It’s the kind of moment that feels contrived to pander to Hollywood’s love for itself, and it’s a reminder that we don’t, in fact, need more ostentatious love letters for the movies. A good film that respects the intelligence of the public is a sufficient love letter.

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