Director: Todd Field
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong, and Sophie Kauer
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes
Available in theatrical release
Love, fame, power, control, fear/respect, and exploitation, and consequences are all explored in the fascinating and unique “Tár.”
The searing drama about a domineering and dangerous maestro is director Todd Field’s first movie since 2006’s painful, uncompromising “Little Children.” He wrote the “Tár” screenplay specifically for Academy Award-winning actor Cate Blanchett, and it would be impossible to imagine this fine film without her ferocious energy.
It should surprise no one that Blanchett is brilliant as the title character Lydia Tár, billed as one of the greatest living conductors of all time. In the movie, Lydia’s historic rise in the classical music community eventually lands her in Germany, where she conducts an esteemed symphony as its first female director.
She rules her orchestra with an iron fist, one she’s more than willing to forcefully employ against anyone who stands in her way. The impact of the muscles she flexes leaves a massive crater of broken dreams in her wake. She’s a cold person surrounded by a tundra of icy sycophants.
In an early sequence, Lydia guest instructs at Juilliard. Marching brutishly around the lecture hall, she focuses her ire on one student, who tells her that he cannot embrace the music of a master because of the way he treated women. In a vicious takedown of the student, she colorfully promotes the concept of separating the art from the artist. Her arrogant and dismissive position doesn’t go over well with the Gen Z students.
Lydia takes no prisoners in her personal life, as well. Returning to Germany, she discovers her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), is experiencing some kind of breakdown. Through a bit of clever subterfuge, Lydia quells Sharon’s anxiety. Lydia covets control in all aspects.
While she’s the leader of the band, her grip on the musicians is derived from exercising her significant talent. If that talent wavers, so too will her ability to exploit others with impunity. And her tenuous radiance threatens to overcome her impressionable and desperate assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who is the holder of many secrets. Lydia has few friends, and loyalty is solely derived from fear. Remove the fear, and the high and mighty will tumble.
In lunches with her predecessor, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), Tár asks some of the right questions about management, but she immediately discounts the elderly man’s sincere answers. Her haughty language conveys the unmistakable belief that there’s nothing she can be taught, nothing for her to learn from others. Everyone is her academic subject. She considers herself without equal.
Lydia’s unquenchable and blind appetite extends to devouring young music prodigies. And a young Russian cellist name Olga (Sophie Kauer) catches her eye. Lydia asks the young musician about the records she listened to as a child. “Not records, YouTube,” the young hipster quips. And Olga snaps that she didn’t know who was conducting but focused on the player.
As Lydia clumsily attempts to seduce the Russian, she is oblivious that the woman isn’t interested. A reckoning may be on the horizon for the steely ice queen. Can Lydia’s unparalleled musical talent help her hide or overcome allegations that would cancel lesser humans?
“Tár” is many different films in one package. It begins as a character piece, then shifts to a psychological thriller, then there are subtle, disturbing horror elements, and it ends with a biting comment on authoritarianism arising from an opportunistic echo chamber. Throughout, Blanchett embodies the autocratic conductor perfectly.
For director Todd Field, “Tár” is a complete departure from his previous two feature film efforts. It’s hard to believe that he’s only directed three films in over 20 years. And this project provides him with a bigger canvas but still contains his bleak, somber commitment to dramatic subjects. And because the story tackles what’s often referred to as “cancel culture,” it feels more current, even trendy, which could cause it to become dated as popular societal trends move elsewhere.
But beyond the storyline that follows Lydia’s familiar scandal-ridden fall from grace, “Tár” is an epic takedown of intellectual falseness. In the opening scenes, Lydia is interviewed on a stage before a large audience.
In an extended sequence that goes on and on, she spars with the interviewer, often using a deep, impossibly contrived, and affected vocabulary that I found intimidating. References to classical music had my head spinning and made me feel intellectually negligible. And that’s the point.
This lengthy interview is a kind of parody, as Blanchett adopts a droll, condescending tone and portrays Lydia as a member of a brainy aristocracy. But all the noble mental acuity in the world can’t save her from the judgmental sauced-up horde gleefully waiting to pounce. This conflict injects rich tension into the narrative, as well as a creeping sadness. Payback is a… well, you’ll get the picture.
Clocking in at over two and a half hours, “Tár” will be a challenge for some viewers. However, I never looked at my watch. It moves exceedingly well, and Blanchett’s stabbing performance is impossible to ignore. Field found his muse in Blanchett. Let’s hope it is a match that leads to more exploration of the human condition.