Report from 2022 Venice Film Festival: Cate Blanchett excels in “Tár,” while ‘White Noise’ and ‘Bardo’ struggle as much as their characters

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VENICE, ITALY — When we meet the imperious, exacting maestro played with thrilling command by Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s film “Tár,” Lydia Tár has climbed every mountain to conquer her own personal summit of fame.

Principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, author (“Tár on Tár”), and celebrated and feared master class instructor with the Juilliard School, she’s introduced as she waits in the wings, ready to take the stage for a New Yorker Festival interview conducted by Adam Gopnik.

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On stage, her interviewer notes that she is a rare EGOT figure in contemporary international orchestral circles, having won an Emmy, a Grammy (she’s prepping for a massive Mahler project to be recorded by Deutsche Grammophon), an Oscar and a Tony Award. In other words: At some point in the fictional life of this fictional creation, she might have commanded a lion’s share of red carpets at the Venice Film Festival.

“Tár” certainly did. Its world premiere here Thursday has stirred up the same intensity of performance buzz generated three years ago by Joaquin Phoenix and “Joker.” In that instance, both actor and movie won major prizes at Venice, with Phoenix going on to an Academy Award. It’s easy to imagine the same trajectory for Blanchett and the film that brung her across the lagoon from Venice, to the Lido, the long sliver of an island where the world’s oldest international film festival, and one of the grandest, began in 1932.

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We’ll have the full review of Field’s first feature in 16 years closer to its U.S. theatrical release on Oct. 7. For now, a few first-look thoughts on “Tár” and two other Venice world premieres dealing with artistic and scholarly obsessives on the brink of crisis.

“Tár”: This prediction comes easily: “Tár” is going to kill with classical aficionados. We’re told Blanchett’s character, a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” raising a young daughter with her partner and first violinist (Nina Hoss), was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein. But times have changed. Tár’s devotion to the established composer colassi — Beethoven, Mozart — looks like a form of cultural belligerence in the eyes of the next generation.

In a fantastically effective early sequence, she singles out one of her Juilliard conducting students for a master class in withering ridicule. The student identifies as biracial and pangender. When pressed by Tár, he says he can’t really relate to the Old Masters, either their music or their newly scrutinized personal proclivities and failings. “Don’t be so eager to be offended,” Blanchett seethes in response, and that’s just a start.

Tár is about to reckon with her own dicey personal history. A former student has died by suicide for reasons to be revealed. (Field is an evil genius in the art of planting seeds and questions in our minds.) There’s talk of the baton-wielding control freak, a revered monstre sacré but maybe something more devious, having exploited her positions of power for possible sexual transactions.

At one point, the Blanchett character and her former teacher discuss, carefully, the recent history of so many of their transgressing colleagues, including a name-drop for former Ravinia conductor James Levine.) Tár’s watchful assistant (Noémie Merlant of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) keeps an eagle eye on her employer’s demands. There are elements of rigorously restrained pulp in how Fields draws on elements of everything from “All About Eve” to the dominoes of what many today, especially on the right, view as insidious, unforgiving cancel culture.

How Blanchett navigates this role is a wonder. It’s her finest 2.5 hours in a very long time, and even when the film wobbles in its final third, the landing feels right.

Two other high-profile studies in artistic narcissism and personal demon-wrestling joined “Tár” in the first two days of the Venice festival.

“White Noise”: The opening night selection, “White Noise” marks a rare misstep for writer-director Noah Baumbach, adapting the apparently very nearly unadaptable 1985 novel by Don DeLillo, about Midwestern liberal arts college professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver, struggling to locate a tonal range for the guy) specializing in Hitler studies, living with his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their various children.

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Part of DeLillo’s mordant jest of a book, and the fun of the wordplay, is that the adults are children, too — especially the niche academics. In the film version, which struggles mightily to find the comedy, Don Cheadle plays an Elvis expert who wants to do with The King what his respected but increasingly death-haunted colleague has accomplished to make Hitler a hot subject among the students.

Into this swirl of Jack’s workaday chaos floats an “airborne toxic event,” the result of a chemical spill. Thirty-seven years ago there was freshness (though even then, it was a little whiny) to DeLillo’s riffs on environmental toxins, slow death by junk food and garden-variety dread. A generation and a half later, the material cries out for reshaping, and even though Baumbach keeps it in the ‘80s, on the first go this strikes me as the first Baumbach film errantly judged both on the page (DeLillo’s incredibly chewy dialogue, in good and less good ways, rolls around like reiterative marbles in some excellent actors’ mouths) and as directed. The “White Noise” Netflix premiere arrives in December.

“Bardo”: Then there’s “Bardo,” also a Venice world premiere, also coming to Netflix in December — and also exasperating. This is a beautiful three-hour dullard, a study in inertia, its characters reflected all too faithfully by the film itself.

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Diving into filmmaking about filmmaking, a la Fellini’s “8 1/2,” co-writer and director Alejándro G. Iñárritu (“Babel,” “Birdman,” “The Revenant”) reworks his own life into that of a fictional Mexican-born, LA-based documentary filmmaker returning home to Mexico with his family to pick up a prestigious ethics in journalism award. The filmmaker, a culturally dislocated soul in search of peace, is played by Daniel Giménez Cacho (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Zama”). The individual widescreen images, partly dreams, partly reality, reflect considerable craft and a high, often striking sheen. But surfaces are not enough.

Well, for me, anyway. Some people loved “Bardo” here in Venice, others didn’t. But it has been three long years and a pandemic (in progress! with variants!) since some of us were here. For many, critics and human beings alike, the caffeinated babel of post-screening, in-person debates alongside the Adriatic Sea en route to dinner has been a wonder drug, especially when combined with jet lag. It’s no less fantastical than what DeLillo imagined in “White Noise.”

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The Venice Film Festival continues through Sept. 10. Tribune critic Michael Phillips is a panelist for the 2022 festival’s Biennale College Cinema, a sidebar of the main competition slate. Airfare and lodging was paid for by the Biennale.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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