Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 20th, 2022
TÁR (Todd Field, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Of the many fine aspects of Todd Field’s return to directing after a 16-year hiatus (his last film was the 2006 Little Children), his decision to open the movie with a full credits sequence, offering tribute to the many people who worked on TÁR (par for the course for the art form), feels the most radical. Partly a throwback to the days when Hollywood did the same (though never with as long a list) and partly a declaration of principle, the trick reminds us that no one person is singularly responsible for a cinematic artifact such as this, auteur theory notwithstanding. The same holds true for the performance of a symphony orchestra—the background of this new film—where the conductor may rule but is hardly alone. As with much that follows, it’s a brilliant use of visual shorthand to convey larger themes without exposition.
From there, Field launches into his 158-minute opus. His subject? One Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley), star of the classical-music world, and as much construct as brilliant prodigy. We gain a sense of her skills at performance in an extended opening sequence in which she is interviewed by New Yorker magazine’s Adam Gopnik (playing himself). Slow to warm up following Gopnik’s superlative-filled intro, she soon eases into the part of world-famous diva, explaining the ins and outs of conducting to an audience eager to lap up her nuggets of wisdom. She’s at the top of her game (even one of the few EGOTs out there), as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and with a new book about to come out. There’s no place to go but down from this pinnacle.
We’re a far cry from her downfall yet, though that will be the trajectory of the narrative. Poor Lydia Tár. Then again, as do most abusers who mistake talent as license for misbehavior, she deserves the comeuppance. For now, all is good, though we see a hint of how she might misstep in a guest lecture she gives at Juilliard, where she berates a student of color for stating that the music of Bach, a white cis-gender man who fathered over 20 children, holds no interest for him. Sure, it’s a shame that he can’t appreciate composers of another time, but there are far better ways to convince him otherwise than to belittle.
Back in Berlin, Tár reunites with her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss, The Audition), first violinist of the Philharmonic, and their young daughter, Petra. Always in tow is her trusty assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, Jumbo), who aspires to conduct, as well. With rehearsals under way for the orchestra’s next concert, featuring Mahler’s 5th Symphony (which will complete Tár’s Mahler cycle of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon), everyone is hyper-focused on getting the music right, but this doesn’t stop our protagonist from noticing a new cellist named Olga (actual cellist Sophie Kauer). As it turns out, this is by far not the first time her attention has so wandered.
Tár is many things: a meditation on abuse of power and privilege, a treatise on the continuing relevance of established canon, and a reflection on our tendency to forgive misbehavior—up to a point—in deference to genius. At the center of it all is Blanchett, delivering a mesmerizing performance that only she can. Early on, she refers to herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” implying that she came from humble roots, yet for most of the movie she is all imperious loftiness. Blanchett manages to bring both backstory and foreground to bear in this complicated role, and as the trappings of prestige begin to crack, she reveals the humanity beneath.
Given how the imbalance of power in this world is so often in favor of men, it almost seems unfortunate that Field and Blanchett should lend their prodigious skills to a takedown of a successful woman. That caveat aside, this is a major tour de force, entertaining and thoughtful in equal measure. It probably helps (a little) if one knows the setting and can appreciate how expertly Field lays out the details, but even without any such expertise, TÁR is fully of our time, as well as timeless. Let the music play; it’s strong stuff.