By A.O. Scott
Cate Blanchett stars as a world-famous conductor heading for a fall in Todd Field’s chilly, timely backstage drama.
Cate Blanchett as the conductor and composer Lydia Tár in “Tár,” from the director Todd Field.Credit...Focus Features
Early in “Tár” there is a shot of a Wikipedia entry being edited by unseen hands. Whose hands? That question will turn out to be relevant to the plot, but for the moment it is overwhelmed by the mystique of the page’s subject, who is also the protagonist of Todd Field’s cruelly elegant, elegantly cruel new film.
Her name is Lydia Tár, and in the world Field has imagined — one that exists at an oblique angle to our own — it’s a household name. She is introduced to us by the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, humbly playing himself as he interviews Lydia, regally played by Cate Blanchett, on a Manhattan stage. Gopnik’s introductory remarks provide a Wikipedia-style summary with a bit of Talk of the Town filigree, establishing that this is a person who surely needs no introduction.
Lydia’s résumé is a litany of meritocratic glory and upper-middlebrow glitter so lustrous as to verge on satire. She’s a conductor and composer — a maestro — who claims Leonard Bernstein as her mentor and whose career has been a steady ascent through the great orchestras of Cleveland, Boston and New York to her current perch at the Berlin Philharmonic. She has a Harvard Ph.D. and belongs to the highly exclusive EGOT club, having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She has recorded all of Mahler’s symphonies but one, which is coming soon, as is a book, “Tár on Tár,” that will surely be a best seller.
How did she do it? If Lydia Tár were a real person, “Tár” might take the conventional musical biopic route, tracing a path from modest beginnings through hard work and lucky breaks, adversity and triumph. That would be a remarkable story, given that in the real world vanishingly few major orchestras have been led by women. (Nathalie Stutzmann, recently installed as musical director of the Atlanta Symphony, is currently the only one in America, as Marin Alsop was until she stepped down from the Baltimore Symphony last year.)
Like “Late Night,” the 2019 movie which cast Emma Thompson as a
powerful network television talk-show host, “Tár” doesn’t so much smash a glass
ceiling as dissolve it by creative fiat. Lydia’s rise is not what we are here
to see. She has been installed at the pinnacle of her profession so that we may
witness her fall.
Following Lydia from New York back home to Berlin, Field strews omens and red herrings in her path, slowly and deliberately fostering a mood of dread and paranoia. She receives an anonymous gift — a signed early edition of Vita Sackville-West’s novel “Challenge” — that she destroys in an airplane lavatory. Strange noises at home disrupt her sleep and distract her from her work. A curious visual motif, a maze or mandala, turns up mysteriously in odd places.
Meanwhile, there are hints of domestic and professional trouble. Lydia lives with Sharon (Nina Hoss), the Philharmonic’s first violinist, and their young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). The couple’s intimacy is edged with wariness and unspoken resentment. Sharon looks perpetually tired. Their child is being bullied in school. The orchestra’s long-serving second conductor (Allan Corduner) has outstayed his welcome. Lydia’s assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who has musical ambitions of her own, gazes at her boss with adoration, terror and simmering rage. A young Russian cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), auditions for a place in the string section, catching Lydia’s attention with her expressive bowing technique and her blue suede boots. (Kauer, a professional cellist as well as an actor, does her own playing in the film.)
Field, whose chilly, psychologically charged style evokes Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick — he had a small, memorable role in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” — records it all with ruthless detachment and fanatical control. He moves smoothly from dry backstage comedy to something like gothic horror. We can’t be sure if Lydia is the monster, the victim, or both.
Does the suspense that builds through the film’s long, faultlessly executed middle section arise from the dread that something terrible will happen to her, or the premonition that she will do something horrible? Both outcomes are plausible. Early on, we witness her discreet betrayal and casual gaslighting of Sharon, her quiet humiliation of a benefactor and rival conductor (Mark Strong) and her chilling confrontation with Petra’s bully. That scene, in which Lydia introduces herself as “Petra’s father” and threatens a small child in perfect German, is both thrilling and terrifying. Her charisma is overpowering, her power unchecked and her confidence absolute.
That will all change, a process Field observes with almost unbearable objectivity. If he refrains from schadenfreude, he also withholds compassion. While “Tár” unfolds in a rarefied cultural space, where aesthetic perfection seems less an ideal than a daily expectation, it also plants itself in a tawdry and contentious zone of contemporary discourse. Field leaves no doubt that Lydia is a tremendous musician, capable of matching Mahler’s genius with her own, and inspiring others to scale the peaks of greatness in her company. Blanchett is completely convincing in this regard — and also in showing Lydia’s imperiousness, her sadism and her predatory manipulation of younger women like Francesca and Olga.
At one point, Sharon describes all of Lydia’s relationships — except with their daughter — as “transactional.” This is a precise, if somewhat abstract, word for a chaotic, destructive pattern of behavior that Lydia’s position has allowed her to get away with. Her comeuppance is equally chaotic, as “Tár” refuses to resolve itself either into a parable of #MeToo justice or a rant about the excesses of cancel culture. (It’s so committed to its noncommittal stance that it sacrifices a dramatic ending for a ragged, wandering, superfluous denouement.)
Toward the end, Leonard Bernstein shows up, in a wobbly black-and-white video recording of one of his Young People’s Concerts, to explain that the meaning of music lies in “how it makes you feel.” A piece of music, he says, carries you through time on an emotional journey that defies easy summary. Sometimes, the feelings are so complicated and particular that they don’t have names, and “Tár,” whose smooth visual surface is roiled by the passions of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor and Hildur Gudnadottir’s original score, approaches that condition.
It invites you to think hard about Lydia, about the meaning of her work and the consequences of her actions, about whether she is someone you should admire or revile, about whether artists should be judged by their work or by how they live their lives. In different contexts, Lydia herself argues both sides of that question, as many of us do, and to search the movie for a consistent argument is to miss the point and fall into a category error, misconstruing the extraordinary coup that Field and Blanchett have pulled off. We don’t care about Lydia Tár because she’s an artist; we care about her because she’s art.