Late in writer-director Todd Field’s viscous, disconcerting character study Tár, world-renowned classical composer-conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) steals a rare moment of domestic warmth with her young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). Observing the plush animals that the girl has arranged into a miniature orchestra, each toy brandishing its own pencil baton, Lydia mock-scolds, “They can’t all be conductors. This isn’t a democracy.” This aside is one of the keys that unlocks Field’s highly anticipated third feature, a work as challenging as it is mesmerizing. Tár is about many things, but most vitally it is concerned with the twining serpents of art and power. Nowhere is their dynamic expressed more lucidly than in the classical orchestra itself, where a musician’s standing is, in part, reflected by their physical proximity to the maestro at the podium. Basking in the reflected light of artistic brilliance can be a glorious sensation, but, as a Terence Malick character once mused, “The closer you are to Caesar, the greater the fear.”
Make no mistake: Lydia Tár is both a genius and a tyrant. A protégé of Leonard Bernstein who has collected several lifetimes’ worth of laurels as a conductor, composer, and musicologist, Lydia has risen to the commanding heights of a rarefied world. Her knowledge is encyclopedic, her work ethic is inhuman, and her passion for classical music – equal parts awed and awe-inspiring – is irresistible. She is also an unmitigated bitch, a fact that she would readily concede. Faced with an anxious Julliard student who confesses that, as a pansexual BIPOC, they just can’t vibe with the work of a centuries-dead White cisman like Johann Sebastian Bach, Lydia publicly humiliates them for what she perceives as an ascendant Zoomer attitude of prissy, self-absorbed small-mindedness. She has a point, but in making it, she reveals that she is a cold-hearted bully, one who takes malicious delight in skewering dissenters with her intellect and then bludgeoning them with self-righteous authority.
Lydia might describe herself with faux-self-effacement as a “U-Haul lesbian,” but she is also a furiously reverent traditionalist who has little patience for identity politics. She would insist that she worked her ass off to ascend through the male-dominated ranks of elite classical music, eventually taking up the baton at the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic – making her the only woman in the world to serve as principal conductor of a major orchestra. Of course, Lydia needs the myth of a pure meritocracy to be true, partly to validate her own brilliance, but also to obfuscate the vicious, petty intrigue that buzzes just beneath the surface of all hierarchical systems. No one approaches the proverbial podium without playing the game and stabbing some backs.
Thanks to Lydia’s undeniable artistic talent and cyclonic charisma – and, though she would never admit it, perhaps also her gender and orientation – she has managed to dispose of her rivals and breeze past her critics. If it was ever considered scandalous for her to have married the orchestra’s first violinist, Sharon (Nina Hoss), the wagging tongues have long since stilled. Indeed, Lydia appears to have left a succession of romantic entanglements in her wake. First among these is her miserable assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who follows Lydia around like a beaten dog, dispensing hand sanitizer and mood stabilizers in the vain hope that she might one day crawl out from under her ex’s shadow. To add insult to injury, it is Francesca who is obliged to fend off the unhinged emails from an obsessed former protégé, a young conductor who came up through the ranks of Lydia's fellowship program before being seduced, discarded, and blackballed.
It’s as though Lydia can’t help herself: She is a wolf at heart, a predator always seeking a fresh kill. Sharon and Francesca both know this from experience, and their eyes follow anxiously but helplessly as Lydia admiringly touches the cherry-red leather of a gushing fan's handbag, or as her head turns to follow the clicking heels of the orchestra’s dewy yet disarming new cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer). Was Lydia always this way, or did this dissolute narcissism emerge as she ascended the classical-music ladder? Tár does not definitively answer this chicken-or-egg question, instead venturing that it is beside the point. Whether the system actively corrupts those it ensnares or simply attracts and rewards those who are already corrupt, no one who participates in the system escapes its black venom.
In the case of Lydia, her tenure at the pinnacle of her field may be nearing an abrupt end. The film’s very first shot regards her from a cool but contemptuous distance, as an unseen smartphone texter snarks about the maestro’s cruelty. Canny viewers will discern a sprinkling of giallo-like clues at the margins of this chilly, meandering psychodrama, warning signs of the noose that is closing around Lydia’s neck. The simplistic reading of Tár would be to regard it as a preening #MeToo parable, one rendered unconventional by virtue of its lofty setting and matter-of-fact queerness. (Depressingly yet unsurprisingly, sexual harassment is just as rampant in the classical-music world as in any other field.)
Although the film is not not a story about the vagaries of so-called cancel culture, nothing about Tár is simple, least of all the way it regards its diabolical protagonist. The dry facts of Lydia’s misdeeds are mostly kept off-screen, her sordid history suggested by the occasional oblique line of dialogue or wavering glimpse of the maestro’s nightmares. Field isn’t interested in litigating her culpability: Lydia’s unrepentant guilt is obvious from her high-handed denials and in the nakedly ravenous way that she regards her latest plaything. This is a person who does not feel a crumb of remorse about the way she treats the mere mortals around her. Yet Tár treats its titular villainess with a depth and complexity that feels sapphire-rare in our current cinematic landscape. It admires her, loathes her, and pities her, all at once. It fears for her soul even as it savors her well-deserved comeuppance, the latter sealed in the mother of all cinematic punchlines. (Which works best if the name Akihiko Narita means anything to you.)
Field allegedly wrote the feature’s script specifically for Blanchett, and although another actor might have been able to convey the sheer gravitational force of Lydia’s monstrous ego, it is in the subtler notes that one can discern the role’s bespoke tailoring. Field weaponizes Blanchett’s daunting, velvety charm, revealing it as a mask that conceals currents of twitchy anxiety and haunted terror. He urges the viewer to sense the defensive crouch in Lydia’s glowing smile and to discern the predatory relish in the worldly flattery she proffers to her victims. (Even as she surreptitiously unsheathes a dagger with the other hand.) He asks us to feel her dread as she sleeplessly paces the darkened rooms of her austere Berlin home – or those of her “bolt-hole,” the old apartment she not-so-secretly maintains, ostensibly for the purposes of composing. Faint, perplexing sounds vex her fitful sleep: a vibrating glass bottle in a refrigerator, an incessant chime in a nearby apartment, and even her trusty metronome, mysteriously set to telltale ticking in the wee hours of the night. The film’s fantastic sound design makes uncommonly exacting use of modern theaters’ sophisticated multi-channel audio systems in these moments.
Here Field applies the patina of a ghost story, one lurking at the crossroads of Olivier Assayas and Clive Barker. Tár is speckled with inexplicable moments and portentous details that suggest an esoteric reality just beyond the limits of perception. Lydia sees a strange, tessellated pattern everywhere, filling her with a primordial fear that she dares not name. She hears a distant, bloodcurdling scream but cannot distinguish its source. She shadows someone to their home only for her quarry to suddenly vanish into a crumbling building choked with fetid puddles and menacing shapes. Field adds these nightmarish flourishes not to suggest literal occult forces at work, but to highlight both the mythic and psychological dimensions of his protagonist’s Miltonian downfall.
Ultimately, Tár is just that: the tale of a prideful malefactor's long, screeching tumble into hellfire-licked exile. It’s devilishly easy to lose sight of this core truth amid the film’s voluminous drifts of jargon-laden musicological arcana, which pile up so swiftly that they may engulf the classical-music agnostic. Field’s dense, meticulous screenplay is rendered even more bewildering by how quickly and fluently Blanchett spits every name, term, and grandiose turn of phrase. However, just as the title of the film — that insistent accent mark! – conceals a time-delayed joke at the expense of Lydia’s pomposity, her high-art fetishisms are the filagree that mask her banal ambitions. In the eternal conversation regarding the distance between sublime art and fallible artist, she is no neutral observer. By urging her students to look past the private misdeeds of the masters, she is implicitly absolving herself for exploiting her power in similar fashion. However, while Lydia might be a monster, she is also a symptom. Tár is no zeitgeisty polemic, and it offers no easy answers. It gesticulates toward a conclusion as sweeping as it is incendiary: To emancipate art from the grip of noxious power hierarchies, the whole damn system needs to come crashing down.
Tár opens in local theaters on Oct. 21.