Few films are brave enough, honest enough, or smart enough to hold a mirror to the realities of today anymore. Whereas the 30s confronted the Great Depression head on, and the 70s were ripe with films ready to depict a society teetering on the edge post-Nixon, few filmmakers have really been able to grapple with the realities of life in the 21st century.
So it came as a real shock across the board that Todd Field, who directed two stellar films in the early aughts and then disappeared, returned to the silver screen with Tár, a searing, epic look at art, artists, and the systemic abuses of power that have come to light in recent years. Field is a master of creating honest, complex portrayals out of society’s nastiest sorts, and thanks to a stellar performance by Cate Blanchett, he has managed to dissect the messy realities of the modern age in brutal, brilliant fashion.
Lydia Tár (Blanchett) may be the greatest living composer. A renowned conductor, EGOT winner, and the first female chief conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic, Tár is one of the rare titans of the classical world to reach the level of household name. In a few short months, she will complete her lifelong passion project: to record the final of Mahler’s 9 symphonies with the same orchestra, the first to ever do so.
However, as rehearsals progress, Lydia begins to come more and more undone by the pressure. And as allegations about her past behavior surrounding her female students – including Krista Taylor, a young woman who recently committed suicide – Lydia watches her life and legacy implode before her very eyes.
Field is a gifted filmmaker, and like the greats throughout history, he manages to use his medium to tackle all sorts of weighty issues through an epic vision. Tár is a film about art, gender, power, fame, genius, corruption, and so much more, all stuffed into every singular frame of its 158-minute runtime. Field and Blanchett are asking us to question ourselves in our views on troubled artists, the work they leave behind, and the legacies we allow them to retain. Lydia is a woman who clearly did something wrong – exactly what she’s done is somewhat left to the viewers’ discretion – and asks us how we feel about it and her.
We know, from the jump, that Lydia is a genius. The film tells us this, and it shows us every chance it gets. We know that she is capable of bringing beauty into the world. We know that she is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who has brought, and will continue to bring great art into the world.
And yet, we are also privy to her worst impulses, and the pain she can bring into the world. No matter what may have happened with Krista Taylor, or any other countless women from Lydia’s past, we still witness the lengths she will go to in order to appease her lust and her ego, the way she grooms and manipulates those in her orbit, and how far she’ll go to destroy those she deems as a threat.
What’s fascinating about Field’s screenplay and his direction is the way it views Tár’s implosion as a litmus test for the viewer. Like his previous works In the Bedroom and Little Children, Field never takes a moral stance on the issues presented – here the ever-whispered “cancel culture” debate.” Instead, he simply paints a picture for the audience and lets them decide for themselves. Take, for instance, the film’s best sequence, where Lydia teaches a course at Julliard and finds herself in a debate with a nervous student who refuses to play Bach for being a “problematic cis white male.”
The sequence can be interpreted several ways. Is she correct in scolding the students willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Is she being pompous in her imperfect statements, a pride preceding a fall? Or is she simply projecting, prophesizing her own future as a conductor punished for her sins, and willing to empathize with evil? Each of these takes is equally correct and incorrect, and that right there is what great art can accomplish.
Now, this scene is slightly undermined by a few strange choices on Field’s part. For starters, the choice to use Bach – a composer with a relatively squeaky-clean image – is somewhat strange for the context, and undermines that character’s argument inside the film, and therefore his realism outside of it. Similarly ridiculous is the way this moment comes back to haunt Lydia later on – not because of her horrific comments, but because of a hastily edited YouTube video too ridiculous to do any significant damage to someone’s career. These oddities could fuel an argument that Field empathizes with Lydia and finds accountability ridiculous, but I think they are more likely oversights on the auteur’s part.
All of this works, of course, because of Blanchett’s brilliant, beautiful, complicated work at the center of the film as Lydia Tár. Blanchett pours her soul into this role, leaving everything on the screen and giving us insight into every aspect of this woman’s messy life, without judgment or approval. Blanchett is immersed in this character, showing us just enough of the genius, stress, and vices for audiences to be capable of dissecting her, even if they can only peel back a few layers.
And that’s part of the fun – observing the complicated realities of this flawed human we follow for two and a half hours. She’s not incapable of being likable. She has a bond with her daughter, a love for her wife, an undeniable talent for her craft, and she’s impeccably witty. And yet she lies so fluidly, and pulls up the ladder behind her in a patriarchal system with such ease, that she borders on sociopathy. It is an indelible character study, left in the hands of one of the greatest actresses working today.
Of course, it’s easy for Blanchett to grace us with this performance when she’s reading Field’s wickedly funny words, and edited so effortless by Monika Willi. Field’s satire of the art world is so sharp it almost feels like insider baseball. Meanwhile, Willi’s editing allows the story to ebb and flow with such deliberate understanding of the medium.
Its only missteps come in the final act, when the screenplay begins to take big, philosophical (and occasionally ridiculous) swings. While the final shot is haunting and scathing in its imagery, approximately the ten minutes to come before it drag in a way the rest of the film does not. It’s a simple stumble at the finish line, but noticeable nonetheless.
It must also be noted that Blanchett’s performance, Field’s script, and this world altogether are elevated by the terrific performances of the ensemble. Most performers only have a scene or two to make an impact, and they seize the opportunity, like Julian Glover as Lydia’s predecessor Andris, Allan Corduner as Sebastian, another conductor she outright loathes, and Mark Strong as the manager of Lydia’s fellowship program.
Yet it’s a trio of actresses that mostly remain in Lydia’s orbit that steal the show, and come the closest to giving Blanchett’s towering performance a run for its money. The first is Sophie Kauer as a young Russian cellist who becomes the focus of Tár’s obsession. Kauer brings a brashness and mystery to the role – you can never tell exactly what she’s thinking at any given time.
The second is the great Nina Hoss as Lydia’s wife and first chair violinst. Hoss has a series of powerhouse scenes, but it is one bit of acting kept solely in the background, when Lydia’s new “favorite” takes the camera’s focus, that remains the film’s best bit of acting. And then there’s the terrific Noémie Merlant, who emerges as the film’s unsung hero. Merlant plays Tár’s assistant and former mistress, and she pours her soul into a role that is equally justified, bitter, social-climbing, and complicated. It is utterly perfection.
Near the end of the film, Lydia is told that crocodiles can survive outside their natural habitat because “crocodiles survive.” It’s a statement that makes one reflect on everything witnessed up to this point. Is Lydia the crocodile, ever to survive despite the odds? Or is this simply how she perceives herself, as capable of a comeback in a world that no longer wants or needs her? And if she is the crocodile, does this mean she will survive at the expense of all those she chewed up and spit out?
I go back and forth on these questions. And that’s why Tár is such an incredible film. Because Todd Field and Cate Blanchett have crafted a marvelous world of Big Questions without a safety net of answers. And the world needs more art to challenge us about the questions we face every single day.
Tár is now available to rent on VOD, and is still playing in theaters nationwide