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Meticulous Self-Destruction: The Cinematic Minefield of ‘Tár’

Through a stunning performance by Cate Blanchett, Todd Field tells a story about modern culture, and what happens when a cult of personality starts to crack

Focus Features/Ringer illustration

Playing a world-renowned conductor holding court during a glitzy onstage interview sponsored by The New Yorker, Cate Blanchett is almost self-parodically in her element in Tár. Which is, of course, the point: If you’re going to write a character who’s famous for being preternaturally talented—a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, with homes in New York and Berlin, a spot on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, and an EGOT on her résumé—it makes sense to cast a phenomenally accomplished actress known for her poise and graciousness. Every time Blanchett’s Lydia Tár inhales to speak, on subjects ranging from musical composition to gender parity in the arts, she’s breathing rarefied air; when she calls room service for water, it sounds like an acceptance speech. The barbed and topical hook of Todd Field’s psychological thriller is whether the same electric brilliance that has elevated a person like Lydia so highly into the cultural firmament (and its adjoining tax bracket) is, or should be, enough to keep her there when she also secretly indulges in her more basic instincts.

Lydia’s days as a hot ticket are numbered, and while describing Tár as a movie about millennial cancel culture would narrow and flatten the movie’s complex field of themes and ideas, it’s clear that Field has at least one eye on the discourse. (That Blanchett has advocated in the past for both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski adds another layer to her casting here.) The film has been carefully structured so that its namesake’s voice dominates the early sections without much interjection. Lydia talks over personal assistants, symphony associates, students, and interlocutors so consistently and magnanimously that they almost seem honored to be bulldozed. Over lunch (his treat), a less decorated conductor (Mark Strong) sucks up like a pro; his comeuppance is having the maestro offer a witheringly condescending reassurance that he needs to try things his own way.

Just keeping Lydia’s Wikipedia page up to date with the latest encomiums from critics and colleagues is a full-time job. While not exactly a TikTok-style star, she has the media’s ear, partially because her performances still sell tickets in a moment when classical music is losing what little traction it had. The cult of personality is a profitable proposition, especially for Lydia, who moonlights at Juilliard in between public appearances, and it’s there that Field gives us the first cracks in her facade. During an intimate master class with a group of conducting students who are mostly too shy to make eye contact, Lydia playfully engages with Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a self-described “BIPOC, pan-gender” student who’s reluctant to take on a Bach composition, citing the composer’s less-than-stellar personal ethics.

At first, Lydia takes the impasse as a chance to have fun with identity politics, sardonically referring to herself as a “U-Haul lesbian” and arguing, passionately but relaxedly, that music—even the music of those dreaded dead white men—needs to be taken on its own terms, especially when progressive cultural heroes of all kinds also have skeletons in their closet. But when the kid pushes back—admittedly haltingly, and without any sort of rigorous argumentative framework to equal his teacher’s—she eviscerates him, scolding him for having sold his soul (and his future) to appease social-media warriors. It’s an uncomfortable scene, unfolding in a single, slowly roving take that draws attention to the cavernous size of the lecture hall as it fills up with silence. For Lydia, who doesn’t like to see herself as a reactionary, the hush is tantamount to a gesture of generational solidarity.

For once, Lydia fails to read the room, and the moment will come back to haunt her. But even in the absence of immediate consequences, Lydia’s spiel raises questions about exactly what kind of person we’re dealing with here: a nonconformist with a vested interest in propping up the canon; a gatecrasher who’s also a gatekeeper. Time and again throughout Tár, we’re reminded that talent and ambition alone are not enough to break down barriers (or smash glass ceilings); they have to be nurtured and aided by interested parties, and not all interests are created equal (or ethical). Making his first feature in 16 years, Field focuses, in pleasingly dense, forensic detail, on the business of living, working, and traveling as an elite, brand-name artist: the connecting flights; the scribbled prescriptions; the negotiations with classical labels over vinyl releases. In the process, he also inventories all the trickily intertwined opportunities for mentorship and manipulation, like whether giving a beautiful young cellist a featured solo is an act of support or seduction—and, if the latter, whether it’s part of a larger, insidious pattern of grooming.

To be a conductor, Lydia says, is essentially to conjure obedience from an entire, skilled ensemble—to set and keep the tempo for everyone else, to even stop time. The wonder of Blanchett’s performance is that she makes Lydia charismatic and precise enough to be able to hand-wave her way into whatever she wants. Insulated by a combination of status and savvy—and lionized for being so unapologetic about her gifts—she practices her dark art in plain sight; the same eyes that turn to her with rapt attention at the podium tend to look askance at her behavior away from it. The character who sees Lydia clearer than most is her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who’s angling for an important position with the Berlin Philharmonic, one that her boss keeps dangling in her face like a mesmerist’s bauble.

In a difficult role that requires her to maintain a relentless posture of self-effacement, Merlant nails the pent-up frustration of a woman who’s fed up with testimonials to her potential, and who’s kept the receipts for Lydia’s other power plays—including an ambiguous, ill-fated dalliance with another up-and-coming female conductor. It’s a testament to how carefully Tár has been structured that Francesca’s potential to swing the narrative doesn’t even come to mind for the first hour; because Blanchett is the focal point of every scene, the other performers come across mainly as afterthoughts. But they’re much more potent than that, and Merlant’s palpably sublimated rage—as well as the deceptive, well-medicated placidity of Nina Hoss as Lydia’s wife, Sharon, who’s also a musician and the primary caregiver to the couple’s adopted daughter—are explosive qualities that the film patiently holds in check.

Field, who got famous for playing the blindfolded pianist Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut, is a meticulous filmmaker: His acclaimed 2001 debut, In the Bedroom, successfully disguised what was basically an old-school vigilante narrative in prestige trappings; it was primal and literary. By contrast, Field’s 2006 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, set in one of those dysfunctional suburbs so beloved by satirical novelists, felt like a warmed-over version of American Beauty, complete with overbearing symbolism (the moment you see a dining room full of fine, delicate china, you know it’s going to get smashed up). In Tár, Field has cultivated a clean, severe look that’s well-suited to Lydia’s sterile lifestyle, but he also keeps overplaying his hand: the ominous, bad-dream interludes mapping Lydia’s fraught inner life seem to belong to a different, worse movie, maybe one directed by fellow Kubrick worshipper Darren Aronofsky, who’s at least got a gift for freaky imagery.

Where things get very wobbly—though maybe excitingly so—is in Field’s decision to play with pacing. Human metronome Lydia would surely be unnerved by the way Tár starts accelerating in its second half, and the schadenfreude of seeing a culture vulture dislodged from her imperious perch has its own kamikaze entertainment value. If there’s something familiar and even clichéd about how Field navigates the character’s downward spiral, the story’s final destination is genuinely unexpected—so much so that it’s almost as if the movie has started hallucinating on Lydia’s behalf. It all builds to a devastatingly funny punchline that immediately joins the ranks of endings that demand to be hashed out with a group of friends. Depending on how you take it, it either definitively crystallizes or coyly obfuscates Field’s feelings about what’s at stake when aesthetics become subordinate to ethics.

The fact is that you probably don’t make a movie like Tár if you aren’t interested in nuance, and the film, for all its provocations, isn’t necessarily trying to corner or end the argument at its center. One potentially uncharitable view is that, by foregrounding a queer woman as its example of a monstrous creator, Field is jerry-rigging a glamorously edgy effigy to take the heat off the same male establishment Lydia Tár is so eager to speak up on behalf of (imagine if the protagonist had been a two-fisted, toxic auteur à la David O. Russell). There’s also a sense that in leaving the exact nature of Lydia’s transgressions ambiguous, the director is building in some wiggle room with which his antiheroine might be redeemed or reclaimed as a tragic case—a victim as well as a perpetrator.

No less of an iconoclast than D.H. Lawrence famously opined about the necessity of trusting the tale rather than the teller, which makes Tár’s slight untrustworthiness as a movie about these very issues hard to gauge. Is Field a reactionary apologist working in bad faith to exacerbate woke culture, or is the ultimate ignominy of Lydia’s fate his way of suggesting that for geniuses no less than the rest of us, the moral arc of the universe bends toward poetic justice? “We need a new narrative,” an image consultant tells Lydia somewhere in the homestretch, and our last glimpse of her, broken but unbowed, feels right precisely because it gives the lie to that statement. You can’t separate the art from the artist, but you can change the venue.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.