Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Two of 2022’s best, playing this weekend: Tár at the Uptown, The Eternal Daughter at the Grand Illusion.
(The movie’s publicity has the title as an all-caps affair; this is absurd, as the word is a character’s name. If somebody has a reason that the title should be rendered TÁR, please explain it to me.)
Tár is the kind of movie Nick Nightingale would make, if that piano-playing mystery man survived the rumpus of Eyes Wide Shut. You recall that Nick is the guy who gives Tom Cruise’s desperate doctor information about the masked ball. A former med student, Nick gave up that career path for a life of playing music in cool bars; he has a dapper little goatee that betrays his susceptibility for getting hired to perform for dark private events. He’s given his life to music, and he must see the way musicians can have a streak of craziness, or at least have their own realities.
Todd Field played Nightingale and also, of course, wrote and directed Tár, and while my opening paragraph is just a clumsy way into writing about a complex movie, there is something Kubrickian about Field’s method in this movie, as Tár is a cold, formally composed study of the price of success and inauthenticity. We get to know the renowned conductor Lydia Tár as she is being interviewed onstage, and Cate Blanchett is already mercilessly dead-on in her performance: Lydia has constructed someone named Lydia Tár, and the way she smoothly plays this persona tells us much more than her answers to the interviewer’s questions. (It also tells us something about how we swallow slickly-told stories that flatter the speakers and flatter us.) Field is also dead-on, in how he sees this presentation, using a series of somehow impersonal angles, as though Lydia Tár were directing the scene and looking for the most impactful views.
The movie that follows is frequently exhilarating in its portrayal of Lydia—the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic—and the way she deploys her celebrity, including a single-take sequence in which she dismantles a class of students drunk on the joys of cancel culture. But Lydia is trapped by the film, too, and by the persona she has created. Watching this persona shatter is a fascinating experience, thanks to Field’s rigorous approach and Blanchett’s knifelike performance. This film will not please people who want answers, or who want movies to provide definitive conclusions. The final sequences are rich in ambiguity, irony, black humor, and skepticism, all those things that trouble us so much. But maybe we should learn to stop worrying and love them instead.
The Eternal Daughter
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (2019) was a contained masterpiece, followed two years later by the somewhat less masterpiece-like The Souvenir: Part II. Going by character names alone, The Eternal Daughter would seem to be part of this (please forgive me) “cinematic universe,” some years after the events of the Souvenir films: daughter Julie is now a middle-aged filmmaker, and her mother Rosalind an elder. Both roles are played by Tilda Swinton, delicately and beautifully. Despite these connections, the film works as a standalone, and fits into a long tradition of British ghost stories.
Mother and daughter are spending a few days at an old hotel, reputedly haunted, and that’s as much as we need to say about what goes on, plot-wise, although there isn’t much. Hogg creates this world out of reassuringly familiar pieces (if you glanced at the movie, you might think you were watching a comfort-food BBC ghost story from the 1970s), yet it feels fresh and unsparing. And passionate, in its English way, about the mystery of what happens between mothers and daughters. There are different kinds of ghosts, and the way this film is haunted is what makes it another contained masterpiece.
December 30, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.