Cate Blanchett: “There’s so much to talk about.”
Todd Field: “There’s a lot to talk about.”1
CB: “In fact, it’s very hard to pin the movie down, which is its strength.”2
CB: “…a film that is asking big metaphysical and existential questions…”3

Cate Blanchett, the celebrated Australian actor, has recently received several prestigious awards including the Golden Globe for Best Actress, for playing Lydia Tár, the American genius, lesbian conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, in Todd Field’s Tár (2022). However, it failed to win any Oscars in 2023, along with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022). At first glance though there appears to be no basis for comparing the two films on structural aesthetic grounds, I will demonstrate how one might think the two films together in terms of analysing the crafting of a character type or persona in the script and the related choice of styles of acting to embody it. Critically, Tár was largely a success. But Luhrmann’s Elvis was either loved or vehemently loathed by critics in Australia and internationally too. 

Tár is an ambitious independent film but with a small Art House box office return failing to cover its production costs, but with Cate Blanchett’s acting receiving unanimous critical acclaim. In describing the film as “asking big metaphysical and existential questions,” she invokes the gravitas of mid-century European philosophy.  In the many Q&A sessions promoting the film, she has said that it’s hard to define, implying that it’s a very complex film. In contrast, Baz as the consummate showman, introduced his film pithily, saying that it’s all about “the show” and “the biz,” but stuff happens when the balance is out of whack. With characteristic Oz-camp cool, he avoided evaluating his own work. And as always, the critics slammed it and trashed it, but the audience loved it. I follow the Oz convention here, of referring to him as “Baz.”

Here I reflect on a politics of film criticism by analysing the appreciative review article on Tár by the University Professor and celebrated British writer Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books.4 This long piece on a film is a significant exception in a journal that normally only publishes long review articles on scholarly books, literature and art exhibitions. Here, in order to develop my argument about styles of acting and a conception of character as persona, I align an aspect of Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis with Tár. In this way I can do two things at once, namely analyse Smith’s rhetoric and visual analysis (a meta-critical gesture), while presenting my own ethico-aesthetic account of the film. As a film theorist, I like reading writings on film by non-specialists as film itself is “the Art of The People,” “Democracy’s theatre,” as ideologues of American Cinema propounded in the early days of film history in the US. However, it is not possible for non-specialists to review art exhibitions or say a novel or a book on history because it requires highly specialised knowledge of traditions. We all have opinions about films though. Also, the prose of a novelist turned film critic such as Smith’s is enjoyable to read in a way that academic prose, most of the time, isn’t because we write only for those within the field and not for a general public, so it tends to be tone deaf. Senses of Cinema as an Australian, publicly funded, online critical project, some 20 odd years old, is most unusual in that while it publishes refereed scholarly articles, it also encourages a mixed mode of address accessible to a wide global cinephile readership and includes screenshots, a huge treat for someone like me who, on principle, never use any film stills in my scholarly writings. Instead, a theorised descriptive practice has replaced it, which unfailingly generates for me empirical stuff, food for thought to digest.  


Towards the very end of her thematic analysis of Tár as a feminist saga, with an overarching focus on an idea of inevitable Anglo-American intergenerational conflict, Zadie Smith poses the following question about the character Tár almost as an afterthought:

Why do female ambition and desire have to be monstrous? Why choose a woman to play this kind of monster when her misdeeds are so commons among men? Or, conversely: Isn’t it great that women now get to be just as monstrous as any one else? I don’t think these questions are without merit, but I notice the way such prefabricated talking points function independently of any particular character or film.5

With a few of the most powerful men in Hollywood and the US media now serving jail sentences for their monstrous sexual predation (which was thought normal for men until the #MeToo Movement), these questions need a bit more attention and shouldn’t be so swiftly dismissed as being inadequate to what Smith considers to be the rich complexity of the character of the female conductor Lydia Tár and by implication the film itself. Let me outline a historical context to that first question. In fact, a version of that question is among those that launched the historical project of Feminist Film Theory in the 1970s, as a very ambitious progressive, interdisciplinary intervention into the Humanities curriculum of Cinema Studies, in the Anglophone academy. It is through the theoretical elaboration of this discourse that, once upon a time, I myself cut my intellectual teeth, at an Australian University, by writing a doctoral dissertation on Female Representation in the Sri Lankan Cinema, which was my own national cinema. But referring to such a question (about the historical interrogation of roles given to women in film), as a “prefabricated talking point,” strikes a dissonant note as though we have been there and done it. Certainly, when once profoundly political questions become tired and therefore ineffectual, it behoves us as feminist critics to see how, or indeed if, they might be reformulated in ever changing political and media scapes. But the way women/girls are represented on film needs to be continually examined, as the project has immense educational value for young girls to learn to question naturalised negative gender stereotypes in particular. Doing so creates a desire to imagine alternatives, by understanding how gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and much else have been represented historically. But how we do this work, the requisite methodologies, have to be constantly interrogated and refined, not made automatic. That, I believe, is what I am doing here in my own way, as a contribution to feminist film theory and criticism.

On the second question, it is true, great actors do love the challenge of playing famously difficult, wicked roles like that of Lady Macbeth or Medea, who killed her own children to avenge her husband’s infidelity. Who could forget Maria Callas, and her magnificent rage and monstrosity as the mythical Medea, in Pasolini’s splendid film of that name? I am glad Blanchett got a chance to play a truly monstrous character, who self-destructs but keeps on keeping on and does not commit suicide despite career suicide. The question does touch on the important point about the limited roles Anglophone female actors have had in film, relative to theatre. And yet, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask if the important topic of “Women and Professionalism” has been handled judiciously, in the current combustible moment where gendered institutional violence is being addressed publicly, globally as never before. For Blanchett to now suggest that the film is a cautionary “fairy tale,” is a defensive gesture to parry the recent unequivocal criticism of the film made by Marin Alsop, the celebrated American lesbian orchestral conductor (a recipient of the McArthur Genius award), mentioned by name in the film. Alsop says the film plays up to the dangerous stereotypes of both contemporary conductors and women in leadership positions.6 She says that she herself has experienced misogyny throughout her career as she progressed to the top and that she has seen progress and then regression many, many times. As such, she has said that the film offended her as a woman, as a conductor and as a lesbian.

However, Tár has certainly offered Blanchett a chance to advance her own craft and career, as one of Australia’s great actors, on a par with the other brilliant Australian actors, Nicole Kidman, most especially in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), certainly a luminous Oscar-worthy performance, in my opinion. Check out the magnificent virtuoso scene, where Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), as fictional and real husband and wife get stoned, try to have sex, fight and unravel time, memory and their marriage right there in their bedroom. The bed itself on which this micro-drama is staged, belonged to Stanley and Christiane Kubrick, I gather. Go figure! Screened soon after Kubrick’s death, critics slammed it while people rushed to see it as the director’s last testament. About 16 years later it was screened as Christmas fare in several art house cinemas across NYC and critical opinion has finally shifted while the durable fan base continues to thrive, well-educated by the “Travelling Kubrick Archive Exhibition.” 

My approach to film scholarship is formed by ethico-aesthetic values. My argument here with Smith, however, is about the aesthetics of Tár’s construction which is a problem in Field’s script writing and crafting of the persona, in her very conception, which is neither rich nor complex, in my view. Mine is a technical, formal criticism which is an aesthetic one, but eventually there are ethical values to be reckoned with in any feminist film critical practice. They are constitutive of that ambitious political project. Critics like Smith are beguiled by Blanchett’s outstanding technical skills and brilliant rendition of the persona, which is really a hyperbolic construct, an American-Monstrous, post “Feminist” Lesbian-Genius. The critical point is not that Tár the character might think of herself as being above and beyond Feminist demands, but rather, that the Tár persona is ontologically a product of feminism. By this I mean that such a persona could not have been imagined and realised before the historical successes of key demands of both Second and Third Wave Feminisms. The political achievements of these movements have made it possible for Field to create a persona who can take those achievements (of which she is a beneficiary), as a given, and therefore not make them a specific focus of attention. My task here is to show the ethico-aesthetic grounds for the failure of the film in its very crafting and the weakness of Smith’s argument. I agree with Alsop that the film is politically regressive in constructing a monstrously predatory lesbian conductor, albeit a genius with a powerful intellect. Tár is a working-class beneficiary (from Staten Island), of the long Women’s Movement in the US and an emblematic icon of the American Dream, of its utopian promise and also its unsustainable cost, its underbelly. 

I would argue here that Tár is in fact crafted as an allegorical persona, albeit unwittingly. Tár’s persona is overloaded with some of the main achievements of Second and Third wave western white feminism in the Anglosphere. Feminists demanded that women have access to education and any profession of their choice that they were qualified for, sexual freedom to love outside patriarchal heterosexual norms, marry whichever gender they choose or not, adopt children and have careers, not be tied to the domestic sphere and “have it all.” Such a dream is also uniquely American, because it’s an essential part of the “American Dream” as well. “Third World” feminists for instance, had other priorities and Australian feminism was no copy of the American in the way it worked with the Federal Whitlam Government to implement major institutional changes. American feminist art historians asked a key question, “why have there been no great women artists…” across the whole sphere of art, which did open up a rich field of historical research. Tár is a persona, who embodies and has realised all these demands and some, in a manner that appears quite unrealistic. Which is fine, but then to claim that she is a “real-complex-character-with great-depth and complexity,” flies in the face of her attributes and how she is formed structurally as a character or persona. She has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, she is an EGOT-winning composer, having excelled at Julliard and gives master classes in composition, and has recorded all but one of the Mahler Symphonies, reached the very heights of conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, where up to now, there has not been a single female conductor. Though Australia’s own Simone Young was the conductor of the prestigious Hamburg Philharmonic from 2005-2015 (until her recent retirement), without any “Sturm und Drang.” Tár’s CV is read out at the opening of the film by the actual Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, as a documentary conceit. It is really an exposition, an allegorical one, piling up detail after detail of background information, hyperbolically. From that moment on, Tár has all the formal lineaments of an allegorical emblem in the European tradition, which combines an image and a text, technically speaking. Playing the technical credits in the opening scenes is also a conceit, which really doesn’t work rhythmically, feels very flat. It simply and laboriously signals that we are about to watch a “serious Art Film that breaks with convention.” Tár’s CV introduces her as an allegorical emblematic persona. But the conception is clunky, as is the dialogue dripping with irony. Each scene is there to make a point, a thesis of sorts. As soon as a scene commences, it becomes clear how instrumental it is, which is one of the functions of heavy allegory which makes the rich polyphonic cinematic sign, a mere signal to decode. This is unlike a subtle creation of an allegorical persona by, say Raúl Ruiz, the great master of allegorical cinema of lightness and complexity. Tár appears to stumble into allegory, unwittingly.7

Richard Brody in The New Yorker, made the same point bluntly by saying that, “The film is a slew of illustrated plot points and talking points.”8 To borrow Bernard Shaw, it’s a “Thesis Film” (shouting out loud that a lesbian conductor can also be power hungry and exploitative, a monstrous artistic genius just like any maestro), trying to pass as “rich and complex art.” The sleight of hand lies in Blanchett’s fine crafting of a woefully literal minded, week script. Perhaps, Todd Field has worked too long in writing for the advertising industry not to realise that instrumentalising the film image in this way kills it, yet again. In the early 20th century, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin theorised that the modern capitalist advertising industry worked with allegorical procedures, infusing life and meaning into inanimate commodities arbitrarily and thereby creating new alluring abstract meanings in order to sell a product.9 Tár is an ahistorical abstraction, animated by Blanchett’s skills as an actor. This mode of abstract thinking has seeped into Field’s crafting of the cinematic image, character and dialogue, unwittingly, I think. Perhaps his two early films (which I haven’t seen) are delicate and subtle in feel, in the dynamics of the shot, editing and sound-image relationships and overall rhythmic coherence, made soon after film school and before working in the advertising industry. I am not saying that learning from advertising practices is bad or that you can’t shuttle between the two. Think of Spike Lee’s Nike add for which he was attacked. The Ridley Scott of Thelma and Louise (1991) came from the world of advertising. Ruiz made the point that Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist art owed a great deal to the logic of advertisements. When Baz was asked to make an advertisement for Channel N° 5 he made a distinction between making an advertisement and a film, saying that what he made was a short film on the product, with Kidman. The difference between Field and these artists is that they were aware of what they were doing and knew the difference between the two mediums and had the agility to even play between the two modes. Field’s tone is altogether overly earnest, with no sense of play at all.

It is no surprise that a critic in awe of Blanchett’s acting attributed a sonata structure to the film, just because it’s set in a classical musical institution. But the film sags in the middle in the overly long pile up of auditory hallucination scenes and the Asian sequence is muddled and overly long, unable to synthesize anything, as a sonata does. The musical analogy is a lazy use of a metaphor, thinking that because it’s a rehearsal film about classical music and creativity, that the film itself must have a musical structure. The Asian scenes show us how hard the film tries to create an interiority for the character but fails, simply because she is an allegory (an amalgam of post-feminist traits of an American musical genius), an abstract idea incarnated mechanically. A hyperbolic allegorical persona like Tár cannot be infused with an interiority or subjectivity (even with Blanchett’s fine skills), because the persona Tár is, at its core, a mechanistic construct, an affectless void. Perhaps this is why Blanchett has assiduously created a powerful discourse about her persona and the film as “metaphysical” dealing with an “existential” predicament, which has worked very well for its success at the various awards for the film and her as an actor. 

Tár, despite Blanchette’s virtuoso acting, cannot overcome the weakness of the very overloaded allegorical conception of an “American-Monstrous-Feminist-Lesbian-Artist-Genius.” To be generous, one might say this is an improvement on the infamous “Monstrous Feminine” in horror film, about which the Australian feminist film theorist Barbara Creed has written some definitive and influential books. The vagina dentata, a misogynist, archaic, patriarchal projection has created this mythical figure of the “Monstrous Feminine” who litters horror films, especially. But Todd Field’s film creates the unique “Monstrous-American-Lesbian-Genius-Artist,” as rather more cerebral (than carnally monstrous), in the social context of US “Cancel Culture” and the #MeToo Movement, attempting to give it topicality and perhaps historical grounding, in the long but highly compressed present tense of the film. 


A Grotesque Punch or Pulcinella

As a film scholar and cinephile I appreciate and research the history of different ways of constructing film characters, personae, say in Indian melodrama and Sri Lanka cinema, silent film, so that we are not stuck with some limited idea of “realist” psychologically motivated characters of whom some people demand that they be people who look like them. And the corollary to this, not unimportant narcissistic wish for identification, is the idea that characters must be likeable or empathisable and if not, then they be very bad or even evil. In this highly cramped ethos, I find Luhrmann’s conception and fabrication of Tom Hank’s role as the historical Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, as a grotesque creature out of pantomime, a carney, immensely cheering. His persona in the film is really the archaic Pulcinella from Italian commedia dell’arte or pantomime, rejigged as a contemporary grotesque Punch as in Punch and Judy, who true to type as a monstrously greedy agent of capital, “punches” Elvis to death.10  


Grotesque Ocker Types

The grotesque as a popular aesthetic and a performance mode has a rich European folk and avant-garde archive which Baz, trained in theatre history and practice, knows from within. Personae from this popular archive people his films gleefully as contemporary grotesque Oz social types which touch a raw nerve within Australia but also insights merriment on recognition, as in Strictly Ballroom (1992) Baz’s very first film, an adaptation of a student play he directed at NIDA. The arch villain Czar of the Ball Room Dance Federation was memorably performed by Bill Hunter, as a grotesque Ocker persona. There is indeed a gallery of Ocker grotesque types in that film, which in turn sanctioned the creation of this comic grotesque Ocker archetype, replayed repeatedly in the Oz films of the ‘90s such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephen Elliot, 1994), Muriel’s Wedding (P. J. Hogan, 1994), and others. Many critics punch Tom Hanks’ Punch character with critical assumptions which are really “straw men.” The actor Pat Thomson, who played the excessively Ocker mother in Strictly Ballroom, was at first attacked for her repressive-grotesque-Ocker-Oz- performance but was then posthumously awarded for her virtuoso performance. 

The Grotesques: Colonel Tom Parker & Lydia Tár

Absurd as it may sound, Baz’s and Tom Hanks’s monstrous manager, Colonel Parker, has a family resemblance to Blanchett’s equally fabricated Lydia Tár. They are not “realistically” conceived, but phantasmatic, overblown dramatis personae, encoding through abstraction, many cultural pathologies endemic to the American Dream. Both are outsiders who climb or claw their way to the top through their exceptional skill and steely will, and excel, one in the “biz” and the other in the “show” we call Art, an anagram of Tár and also rat. Why, I wonder, is there no discussion of the American Dream and its grotesquely pathological underbelly (Gatsby!), as it intersects with the ambitions of White American Feminism, in much of the critical literature on this film I have now read? Meanwhile, ignorant critics, much offended, have nominated Tom Hank’s contemporary, grotesque Punch avatar for a Razzie!


Zadie Smith’s thematization of the Tár narrative as one of generational “battles” among Gen X feminists (which she identifies with), and the millennials, is a woefully simplistic way of conceiving historical change, as though they are the motor of history. I think it’s also a very limited, middle-class-specific way of thinking social conflict and change. Feminist historiography has done much work to problematise simple linear histories and master narratives of this kind. Her category of “generational change” is a methodologically weak idea, in need of more complex formulations to analyse social phenomena and political movements touched on in the film. Her desire to write herself into this grand saga clouds her perception and writing.

Smith’s visual analysis is also weak, too literal minded because she doesn’t understand film aesthetics well enough. She says that when she saw the poster for Tár with the low angle shot of the conductor with outstretched arms, she thought of Christ on the cross and felt she must review the film. This is film studies’ lesson 101 in Oz high-school English, the “Hitler shot,” not Jesus, suffering on the cross. One of the last scenes of Tár observing a young couple seen kissing through a waterfall, which Smith considers beautiful, is also another allegorical image, where the seeming lyricism is already prefabricated in an Asian elsewhere, as in a tourist advertisement for a quiet tropical escape. One gets the sense that the film didn’t know how to conclude the narrative and so flies the character to a Southeast Asian country with a different tempo. It feels very much like a deus ex machina device. 

Tár Theatrical Poster

Smith and several others compare the sense of suspense or menace felt in a scene or two in the film to suspense in Kubrick! Just because Todd Field acted as the blindfolded organist in the Eyes Wide Shut orgy extravaganza for the 1%, doesn’t warrant a serious writer to free-associate like this, which we might do with a friend after a film, over a drink for fun. If a student did that in a term paper, I would show them (tactfully), why this is intellectually feeble because it is ahistorical and mechanistic. Why reach for Kubrick, one of the greatest, when any old British TV thriller at hand would have done. Similarly, Tár lost in a derelict building, kind of haunted with puddles of water, doesn’t warrant a comparison with Tarkovsky. Free association here masquerades as thought. This argument from the authority of great filmmakers is feeble and blinds them to Field’s inability to craft a narrative of overly long duration, which is quite unlike advertisements which now work in nano seconds.

The scene where Tár bullies the school kid is so staged it comes with the allegorical text, “Monstrous ‘Tiger’ Mother.” The scene prior to that, in the car, finds Tár and her daughter reciting a nursery rhyme about attribution of guilt. The classroom scene of teaching as power play, where she “cancels” a student of colour, beloved by critics, is again so unwittingly allegorical that it was embarrassing to watch. I say so because the director is not aware that he is in fact constructing an allegorical scene with a lesson writ large. The “arch of the scene,” its thesis, is so evident in the first few minutes as if it were an advertisement demonstrating “Cancel Culture.” But many critics are really taken by the virtuosity of Blanchett’s performance of the Monstrous Genius Artist, the sound of her gorgeously calibrated voice and the impressive preparation she underwent (studying conducting, German, and the piano), and perhaps therefore fail to register the poor construction of shot, scene, sequence, and character and even the overall rhythm of the film, its editing for suspense in the “auditory hallucination” scenes, and so on. While one can appreciate Blanchett’s craft as an actor, her work ethic and her obvious relish in playing the virtuoso wicked role, the persona itself can be seen for what it is, a thinly disguised simplistic, politically regressive allegory, masquerading as Art. There is not a line in the film with even a faint historical sonic memory of a vernacular line such as, “Out damned spot!” which haunts the sleepwalking monstrous Lady Macbeth. A mechanistic construct such as Tár cannot be invested with an unconscious such as that of Lady Macbeth’s, which shatters even her monstrous iron will. Tár doesn’t shatter, can’t, because her persona is constructed out of a set of American genius-clichés. There is nothing there to break. But let’s just imagine that she does go through the gestures of cracking-up, then there would be nothing to see within, just the empty shell of a failed mechanical allegorical construct.

I have a suggestion to give Blanchett, for a different set of moves from that of acting as Tár. It would be wonderful if a brilliant script writer (from theatre perhaps), could write for her a zany comedy with sparkling dialogue such as we have heard from the rapid-fire repartee of the likes of Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, in the great screwball comedies of Hawks, Cukor and others in the 1930s Hollywood. They were the “daughters” of the American Suffragette generation and crucially inheritors of that political legacy and the uniquely American kinetic elan of the modern dancer and that of slapstick comedy too. No intergenerational conflict there, pace Zadie Smith! 

Once, I saw Blanchett live at a Sydney Theatre company production where she transformed like quicksilver into numerous personae, so light on her feet. I saw the performance with a colleague who is a clown-actors, who thought that Blanchett had the sublime powers of a clown’s body and spirit, a bit like Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929). The iconic Brooks famously said that, while she learnt to dance from Chaplin, she learnt to act from Martha Graham. The zany Mabel Normand popped into my mind when Blanchett ran in and out of the stage at top speed. If only there were director-writers who can restore lightness, sharp wit and the physical comic prowess of shapeshifting, to the female actor. Then an actor like Blanchett (who has no doubt many untapped resources), might be able to show us the art of survival and more with grace, enjoyment and mad-cap humour. To do this late in life would inspire several generations of female actors and writers to come, as Michelle Yeoh no doubt will after her Oscar win as Best Actress in Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2022). 

I think Todd Field has worked far too long in the advertising industry and however soft the sell, it’s still selling a product. I have arrived at my critique of Smith’s discourse and of Tár through a reasoned argument with evidence. Film at its most visionary (unlike capitalist advertisement) reaches towards something else, something more than maximising profit, something not quite known, not yet perceptible or even tangible, and it is that mighty strange creature, the actor (of any kind of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and age), who can, in intimate collaboration with a writer-director, suggest to us the unknown. This is psychically dangerous territory for the actor. Think of the young Australian actor Heath Ledger’s untimely death on prescription meds (like Elvis’), and what he said about how he felt each night after filming the role of the grotesque Joker, in Batman, that it was hard to “come down” after playing the daemonic role. That’s also why, but for other reasons, there are martyrs of cinema like Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim and Louise Brooks in silent cinema, and too many others globally. They dare to burn so much money for a few intense moments that catch fire, awakening our senses and minds. They speak to us through the flames and the echoes of laughter and delight. Instead of the “Monstrous-American-Feminist-Genius-Artist” let’s have Zany Feminist Comedians again, in this new millennium, with their ability to show or suggest to us the imperceptible and the as yet unknown through zany-turns, wit and even slap-stick gags. Perhaps Michelle Yeoh could now co-write a script and show us moves unimaginable within Hollywood.

Let me conclude with the montage in my title for this piece. The empty shell (sans interiority, subjectivity, pathos), that is the Tár persona crafted by Field and Blanchett, is worlds apart from the Elvis persona crafted by Baz and Austin Butler. While American critics have lazily referred to Elvis as a “biopic,” it’s not a generic film conforming to the familiar Hollywood template of the biography of a star. Elvis is sui generis. Critics who dislike the film say that they have learnt nothing from the film about Elvis. But how could one, when the sonic-imago of Elvis and his life (as an all-American tragic mythical global icon), has been available as a seemingly inexhaustible media “archive” of clichés for 45 years? Baz’s very own personal Oz drive to have dared to make the film remains something of a mystery to me and I like to leave it like that. The Tár persona, I have argued, is an affectless allegorical abstraction, constructed out of her hyperbolic CV, signalling the psychopathology of an AMERICAN FEMALE GENIUS. Its assiduous marketing as a “metaphysical” film grappling with “existential” anguish suggests to me that it was calculated to win awards, at which it has mostly excelled (but minus the Oscar) despite its poor box office performance. In making pain the leitmotif of Baz’s exuberantly Oz Elvis (incarnating a soulful American icon, with deep roots in Black music), I feel that they were after something other than awards, though a few never hurt.11


  1. Eric Kohn, “Cate Blanchett and Todd Field on Method Acting, #MeToo, and the Movie Theater Crisis,” Indie Wire, 5 Octobre 2022.
  2. Richard Morrison, “Cate Blanchett: ‘Early in my career I would be treated brutally by a director,’The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Decembre 2022.
  3. Kohn, op. cit.
  4. Zadie Smith, “The Instrumentalist,” The New York Review of Books, Volume LXX, Issue 1 (January 2023): pp. 12-15.
  5. Ibid. p. 15
  6. Scott Mendelson, “Female Conductor Referenced in Tár Slams Film as ‘Anti-Woman’ for Making Lead Character an Abuser,” The Wrap, 9 January 2023.
  7. See Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema 2 (Paris: Dis Voir, 2007).
  8. Richard Brody, “Regressive Ideas to Match Regressive Aesthetics,” The New Yorker, 12 October 2022.
  9. See Walter Benjamin: “Every idea, however abstract, is compressed into an image, and this image, however concrete, is then stamped out in verbal form.” The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: New Left Book, 1977), p. 199.
  10. See Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer (London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 256), for an image and account of the grotesque Pulcinella from 16th century commedia dell’arte of Italy. A grotesque attribute of this persona is an over-sized, birdlike hooked nose. Historically the grotesque persona confuses the human and animal distinction.
    Tár is an anagram of RAT and the Colonel is a creature of high artifice, which includes his strange artificial accent. It’s interesting to note that the real colonel has left behind tapes where he rehearses numerous accents in English, which is not his mother tongue.
  11. See Roger Ebert’s exemplary review of Strictly Ballroom, Baz’s first film to become globally popular. I site here this eminent American critic’s generous piece because of how open he was in encountering this film which appeared to be quite unlike anything he had seen, quite wacky. Instead of scorn, he questions his own prejudice and makes an effort to connect with what’s familiar but also able to understand the rhetorical moves of Baz in presenting a parochial camp mode of performance as a life and death issue for the dancers and the dance Czar. Ebert delights in the absurdist humour. I wish he were alive to write about how this zany young filmmaker has developed in three decades, in daring to present his Oz Elvis to the world.

About The Author

Laleen Jayamanne taught Cinema Studies at the University of Sydney. She wrote Poetic Cinema and the Spirit of the Gift: In the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) and directed the film A Song of Ceylon (Australian Film Commission, 1985). Her recent writings on art and politics in Sri Lanka for The Island newspaper are being translated into Sinhala.

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