“Tár’s” breakdown of power hierarchies begins before we are even introduced to its subject, before we really have an inkling of what writer director and producer Todd Field’s 3rd feature film is actually about. It opens with a backwards end credit sequence in which the crew members typically relegated to the bottom of the list of scrolling names, often not even making an appearance until long after the majority of the audience members have exited the theater, appear first. It isn’t until the name of Field himself has crossed the screen that we catch our first glimpse of world renowned composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in back-to-back scenes that couldn’t appear more opposed, and yet are in perfect conversation with each other. In the first scene we watch Lydia from a distance through the screen of a cell phone filming her as she doses on a private jet, a sleep mask covering her eyes, the texts popping up on the screen offering up derisive comments about her. In the following scene Lydia is brought on stage for a conversation with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick, where we glean her backstory by way of Gopnik rattling off her long and impressive resume an impressive resume which includes a mentorship with the great Leonard Bernstein, an EGOT, and the fact that she is the only woman in the world serving as conductor of a major orchestra, in this case, the Berlin Philharmonic, where she is preparing an interpretation of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. As Lydia answers Gopnik’s questions about her approach to her career and her art, she comes off as cool, sharp, quick with a wise word or a joke, and the audience watching her seems to eat it up (confirmed by a voracious fan who approaches her afterwards). But as the cell phone footage that precedes this sequence seems to imply, Lydia’s likeability is a front; those who truly know her see something more sinister.
And it’s mostly women who Lydia– a self-described “Uhaul lesbian”– surrounds herself with. Her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss, who imbues the film with a soul that it is otherwise lacking), serves as first chair of the same orchestra Lydia conducts, and they share a young daughter they’ve adopted, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). But Sharon isn’t blind, and she sees the way Lydia looks at the orchestra’s new cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer), even circumventing the orchestra’s natural order to grant her favors. It’s clear that this is far from the first time Lydia has dangled other women on a string, ensnaring them with the power her fame has given her, only to discard them when they no longer hold her interest. These include Francesca (Noémie Merlant), a former student of an organization Lydia founded to mentor aspiring female conductors, now serving as a glorified secretary, Lydia’s off-handed comments about how much she adores Francesca and is eyeing her for a future assistant conductor position doing just enough to keep her around. And there are whispers about another former mentee, Krista Taylor, who Lydia purportedly black-balled from getting a position with any other orchestra, and who has now been sending her disturbing emails and anonymous gifts. One of the film’s many intriguing puzzles is Lydia receiving a package that ends up being a book that she promptly rips and stuffs in the trash– that book being a copy of “Challenge” by Vita Sackville-West, which the author wrote about a woman with whom she had a relationship attempt suicide (yes this was something I had to Google, but I was pretty amped to discover it).
The conversations and accusations of Lydia’s abuse of these women and others, for the most part, remain just that. As with the recited list of Lydia’s many accomplishments at the start of the film, her misconduct is largely heard but not seen, with whispers alluding to past fraught relationships and allowing the viewer to divine the truth from there. Like Florian Hoffmeister’s gray and clinical cinematography, Fields neither endorses nor condemns Lydia’s behavior, and the result is perhaps a little too cold to land as hard as the film ought to. But Fields and Blanchett, through her performance, leave little doubt as to Lydia’s predatory nature. While delivering a talk at Juilliard, she doesn’t hesitate to put down a student who says he struggles to identify with the old white composers of yore as a “BIPOC pangender” person; despite being a woman, and a lesbian, working in a field typically dominated by men, Lydia calls out what she views as the younger generation’s propensity to get offended at anything and everything. And when Petra reveals that she is being bullied, Lydia goes to her school and theaters the tiny terror herself.
Blanchett, for whom Fields specifically wrote the character, goes a long way toward conveying all this with her performance. Actually, to call what she’s doing in “Tár” a performance feels almost too trite. What she pulls off is a towering accomplishment, and sure, that includes her ability to conduct with big, frantic gestures, and to flip effortlessly from English to German and back as she throws out phrases that only the musically inclined will understand. But as assuredly as she conveys Lydia’s charm, making it easily clear just how she is able to seduce so many with a warm glance and glowing smile, she reveals the cracks in that confident outward persona. Some sequences in “Tár” take on a surreal bent, portraying Lydia’s fears and insecurities through her nightmares and strange occurrences. At one point, she follows a character toward what she believes to be her home, but morphs into a series of dank, labyrinthine tunnels. There’s a recurring bit involving her sickly upstairs neighbors at the apartment she keeps just for composing, the specter of her demise lurking practically on top of her. And she’s disturbed by the smallest repetitive noises– a chime, or the tap-tap of her own metronome.
“Tár” is a movie about cancel culture, particularly the comeuppance abusive high-profile figures have faced in the wake of the #MeToo movement (and while Lydia Tár is a fictional figure, the classical music world has plenty of its own real-life problems), but in an opaque sort of way. Field pushes most explicit reminders of the more hot-button issues (protesters thronging Lydia, a poorly-edited cell phone video posted on social media to make her bullying appear even worse) to the periphery, choosing rather to focus on the minute aspects of Lydia’s personality that lend credence to the accusations carried out against her. And just as the opening depicts a reversal of traditional power structures, “Tár” spends its nearly three hour runtime (which doesn’t leave a shot wasted, and still left me selfishly wanting more of Blanchett as Lydia working which the orchestra) building the case of Lydia’s inevitable downfall, juxtaposing the opening which finds her revered and on top of the world with a perfectly bitter punchline (admittedly, I take some offense at could be perceived as a slight against fandoms and need culture). I’m not as immediately over-the-moon about “Tár” as many seem to be– the emotional disconnect prevents me from feeling as invested as I’d like to– but Field’s focused character study and Blanchett’s towering performance (not to mention Hildur Guđnadóttir’s intense and moody score that complements the inclusion of existing classical pieces) leave no shortage of things to mull over and examine again and again.
“Tár” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 158 minutes. Rated R.