Into a world that has become hyperaware of the abuses of power comes the movie Tár, now playing in theaters locally. Written and directed by Todd Field, an actor turned director (In the Bedroom, Little Children) who seems to be attracted to morally challenging stories, Tár offers up the fall from grace of one Lydia Tár: the fictional maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic, an American musical genius, and a brutally iconoclastic culture star who is accused of workplace and classroom abuses.
Tár is played by Cate Blanchett with fierce drive and a taste for the jugular. That her character is the movie’s title is an obvious choice: there may not be a moment onscreen in which she is not present and a key player. Field always offers the audience enough third-person distance to judge the reliability of Tár’s point of view. But it’s her movie through and through, and its success relies on how you react to her fate.
Even so, Lydia Tár probably doesn’t care what you think. Like a great general, she’s more interested in fear and respect than love. She’s a self-proclaimed “U-Haul lesbian” with a German wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss) — who’s also the orchestra’s concertmaster — and a young daughter, both of whom she treats like prized pawns in the chess game of her career.
The movie opens with Tár being interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (as himself) about the live recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony that she’s working on. It then follows her as she teaches a course at Juilliard, excoriating a BIPOC student for his dismissal of Bach; observes her as she joins judges at a supposedly blind audition for the orchestra’s new cellist and persuades the panel to pick a young Russian, Olga (Sophie Kauer), whom she has an eye for; and finally comes to a head as she rehearses Mahler with the philharmonic, suddenly announcing that she wants to add the Elgar Cello Concerto to the program — with the probationary hire Olga as the soloist.
Tár manages her life with the help of an executive assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), an aspiring conductor who, like every other person who’s a potential competitor, is inevitably screwed over by her. We learn about another aspiring young conductor in Tár’s orbit named Krista, who subsequently takes her own life. Upon learning of Krista’s suicide, Tár deletes all the emails she wrote sabotaging her career and instructs Francesca to do so as well. This sets in motion Tár’s downfall, which she fights with Trumpian gusto.
Because the vector of Tár’s narrative goes from the top down, it’s not structured like a classic rise-and-fall epic. Instead, it feels like things are going in reverse: the long list of tech credits, for example, are shown before the movie begins. In some ways, the atmosphere of paranoia in Tár gives it the texture of a horror movie. There are ominous red herrings everywhere, most of them aural and visual cues, which enhance the subjective quality of how we experience Tár’s world. Field teases you by holding back on full disclosure of what’s going on, especially about those things that Tár herself wishes to suppress.
Yet he fills the movie with musical and cinematic references, providing a rich fabric of clues to Tár’s character. It’s reminiscent of Citizen Kane in that way, except Tár’s corrupted life is explained not by witnesses or “Rosebud” but by the accumulated details of her whirlwind existence. Though Tár’s behavior is clearly monstrous — her wife, Sharon, calls it “transactional” (a timely reference) — Field refuses to make the movie a form of judgment.
The truth is it’s impossible to separate genius from egregious personal and moral shortcomings. Besides being fictional (with echoes of James Levine and Roman Polanski), Lydia Tár is a self-constructed persona. She was born Linda Tarr and grew up on Staten Island. She twists facts in her favor and masks her self-serving political moves with clever rationales. She’s a queer woman in a profession dominated by men, and her EGOT-winning fame is due to her explosive musical talent and relentless energy. Her achievements, much like Levine’s or Polanski’s — or those of the ur-European Bach or even the horrifically racist D.W. Griffith — cannot be easily denied or “canceled.”
However aggravating that may be to some critics and audiences, Tár offers a splendid and engaging display of cinema craft. Field’s script is elegant, and his direction is swift and riveting — the 158-minute film rushes by like an arthouse thriller. Its high-culture production design is haunting, whether it’s of Tár’s austere Berlin loft or Francesca’s gritty slum apartment. And Blanchett is a force of nature, from her erect posture in un-heeled shoes to her manipulative growl of a voice.
You may be offended by the movie, but you probably won’t regret seeing it. Forget Top Gun: Maverick — this is the kind of entertainment that will make film enthusiasts welcome the experience of watching movies in theaters again.