Character flaws abound in this intriguing and challenging film, open to multiple interpretations
Director: Todd Field
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Lydia Tár), Nina Hoss (Sharon Goodnow), Noémie Merlant (Francesca Lentini), Sophie Kauer (Olga Metkina), Julian Glover (Andris Davis), Allan Corduner (Sebastian Brix), Mark Strong (Eliot Kaplan), Sylvia Flote (Krista Taylor), Mila Bogojevic (Petra)
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a maxim humanity manages to prove true, time and time again. It doesn’t matter what the field is, when someone holds sway over the dreams and ambitions of others, there’s a decent chance that power can be enjoyed so much it starts being abused. It’s an idea key to Todd Field’s gloriously complex and challenging Tár, a film that defies easy explanations and characterisations, both frighteningly in the “here and now” but also terrifyingly universal.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is an internationally renowned conductor and composer. The first ever head of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, she lives a jet-setting life of international acclaim and fame, praised at every stop-off for her stunning reinventions of classical music. But dark shadows swirl around her. She plays favourites: and her favourites are always attractive young women, just starting their career, who see her as inspiration and mentor. And Tár? She sees advantages to this. It’s unspoken knowledge to all, from her partner first violin Sharon (Nina Hoss) to the other members of the Orchestra. But as the suffering of one of Tár’s spurned proteges threatens to leak out into the public domain, her empire topples just as she reaches the summit of her career.
Tár is a brilliantly insidious film, a quiet but compelling character study that borrows elements of Kubrickian unknowability. In particular, Field avoids making moral decisions for the audience, but trusts we are smart enough to come to our own conclusions. Effectively, we spend the film following a deeply flawed, Spacey-like figure, whose life falls apart without being invited to feel morally superior to her. It allows us to feel the pain of her meeting the consequences of her actions, but never lets us forget her own arrogance and cruelty caused them in the first place.
Tár is both an inspirational genius and a dyed-in-the-wool bully. She solves problems with the mindset of an aggressive alpha – her solution to her daughter being picked on by a classmate, is outbullying the bully (“I will get you” she tells her, assuring her no one will believe her because Tár “is a grown-up”). She treats her assistant (and possibly former lover) Francesca who tags behind her in the hope of a junior conductor role like a slave, brow-beats Orchestra members and fellow conductors with friendly pressure and views every relationship in terms of what she can get out of it.
As this deeply flawed human-being, Cate Blanchett is mesmeric. Tár is a firm reminder that she is, perhaps, the greatest actor in the world and all her range is on show here. Blanchett is imperious, assured and totally brilliant. She invests Tár with such – admittedly deeply flawed – humanity, we have to constantly pull ourselves up to remember she’s a dreadful person. Tár is arrogant, convinced of her own genius and sees no-one as her peer. She’s also inspirational, charismatic and oddly charming. Blanchett’s mixes tragedy, grief, denial, panic and bottomless bitterness as Tár’s carefully constructed life falls apart like a time-delay car crash that suddenly jumps back into normal time.
Carefully paced – it’s difficult not to reflect on Tár’s opening words at a career retrospective interview on the importance of timing to give each moment its precise impact – Tár never rushes, unless it needs to and slowly, but assuredly unfolds the final days of her empire. It’s like watching the Indian Summer of an Astro-Hungarian Emperor, barely aware that huge global forces are about to sweep everything away and rob her of her control of events. Field reflects this in the film’s assembly: earlier sequences are marked by their long takes – virtuso set-pieces for Blanchett – and tracking camera, that constantly centres Tár. Later sequences become shorter, choppier, narrative information becomes less clear – it’s like Tár has lost control of the film as much as she has her life.
Control is central, and Tár’s abuse of it her undoing. Her (unspoken but implied) predatory demands for sexual favours in return for career advancement are an open secret among colleagues. Field adds a threatening sense of Tár being watched – either recorded on a phone, or shots of the red-haired back of a mysterious woman at key moments. The woman is Krista, a former protégé, the exact nature of her fall-out with Tár unclear, but who Tár has black-balled in the classical music world. Even as the fallout from this threatens to consume her, Tár can’t help herself from attempting to groom a new cellist (Sophie Kauer), fixing a blind audition, favouring her in private workshops and bypassing the orchestra’s new cellist to land her a juicy lead.
It’s part of Field’s wonderful and searching analysis of the corruption of power – even as the house of cards totters, people can’t seem to see it. While being a universal parable, the film is also fiercely topical. Tár has clear parallels with figures like Spacey. Her ageing former mentor (a crisp Julian Glover) bemoans how the slightest mistaken word to someone can be misinterpreted as lecherous abuse. Attention has focused on the idea of this as a cancel culture movie. Tár, at a Juillard lecture, does strongly disagree with a young BIPOC composer, who can’t relate to cis-gender old white guys like Bach. Tár pushes the rather self-righteous young man to justify himself, which he attempts. But she also goes increasingly further and further, moving from persuasion to brow-beating (her natural resort as a bully) and thinly veiled mockery. She’s smart enough to deconstruct the contradictions in the young man’s views – but cruel enough to mock his bravery at standing up. But Field allows both sides legitimate points, something that you don’t nearly get enough of in our polarised world.
Field also tips Tár more and more into something unsettling and other worldly. Tár’s uniquely perceptive hearing means she is plagued with strange noises: a chiming echoing around her bolt-hole apartment (the reveal of what this is, is another reminder of her indifference to other people), a screaming heard while out running, a metronome that wakes her at night. Strange daydreams, with ghostly, vampiric presences fill her mind. Late, she enters a damp-soaked abandoned building which feels like the gateway to some Lynchian parallel universe, guarded by a Tarkovsky-like dog who might as well be the gatekeeper to her nightmares. Much of the final act of the film unspools like a wild, terrible dream, where key events may not even be real. Reality crumbles, just as Tár’s control over her personal and professional life disintegrates.
Through it all we are invited by Field to empathise, but not sympathise, with this demanding and domineering woman. To understand her, but not forgive her, to dislike her but not tar and feather her. A lesser film would have done the moral work for us. Nothing is explicit about Tár’s cruelty, but the tears of her assistant (a superbly fragile Noémie Merlant) and the tight-lipped frustration of Sharon (Nina Hoss is terrifically pained and long-suffering in a difficult role) speak volumes. But yet, it’s hard not to feel something for someone as their life falls apart, no matter how earned the fall might be. Blanchett uses all her skills to make Tár someone who is frequently awful but never a bogeyman, is categorically in the wrong, but still a figure of hubristic tragedy.
Blanchett is earth-shatteringly good in the lead role and Field’s direction is subtle, balanced and plays just enough with your perceptions. Perhaps some of what we see takes place in Tár’s nightmares, perhaps we only see certain characters from Tár’s biased perceptions. It could even be a fabulous ghost story with past misdeeds haunting the frame, a deconstruction of our willingness to pull down the flawed, a study of the abuse of power – or all three and more. The fact you will debate it for weeks to come, means it’s definitely a great film.