movie review

Tár Brilliantly Undoes an Ego Monster of an Artist

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Tár is about someone who gets Me Too’d. Its central figure is a celebrity conductor whose career is reaching its apex when it collides with allegations of misconduct. The fact that she’s female would play, in the hands of a less interesting filmmaker, like a twist or some kind of thought experiment — What if a woman were the accused? What then? But Tár was written and directed by Todd Field, who’s so interesting that, despite all the acclaim received by In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), he couldn’t get another project into production for 15 years, and it’s a lot more intrigued by the dynamics of ego and acclaim than it is with gender. Rather than fixate on the question of whether women can abuse power (the answer is obviously yes, though as with most things, we have historically been given less opportunity), Tár wraps itself up in the life of its imperious protagonist, dwelling on how accustomed she has become to being indulged, and how accustomed everyone around her has become to indulging her.

It’s a total knockout, both austere and dryly hilarious, and its quality is impossible to consider separately from its colossal lead performance. As Lydia Tár, Cate Blanchett makes herself intense, awful, awe-inspiring, and ridiculous — someone who may very well be great, but who’s also been pickled in her own praise. Lydia was born Linda, we learn in a passing exchange that speaks volumes. Tár is packed with details that reward close attention, not because it’s an especially plotty film, but because it keeps its gaze on its main character, mirroring her own self-consumed existence. Events that Lydia’s not paying direct attention to tend to slip by the corners of or off the screen entirely, at least until they become urgent enough that she can no longer ignore them. And the eyes of the world — at least, the elite world of classical music that Lydia inhabits — are usually on her, as emphasized by the subsequent acts of surveillance and performance with which the film begins.

In the opening scene, Lydia, asleep on a plane to New York, is unknowingly livestreamed on a phone belonging to one of the people in her orbit, though which one, and who this unseen figure is messaging with, has been a subject of debates I’ve since had with friends and colleagues. Then she’s onstage with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik for a pitch-perfect marvel of a talk, from the rumble of chummy laughter from the audience at Gopnik’s not-quite-jokes to the reveal that Lydia’s soon-to-be-published memoirs are titled Tár on Tár. She demurs when her own milestones are brought up — Blanchett gleams like platinum in the stage lights — citing the women conductors who’ve come before her as the real pioneers, but also clearly disliking having her success framed in the context of struggles against sexism. Solidarity means that your triumphs are shared, and Lydia wants those triumphs to be hers alone. She’s not a maestra but a maestro, and she’s not driven to reshape the system, just to rise to its top. But not everyone shares that interest, and Field subtly scatters the seeds of his heroine’s eventual downfall.

Lydia’s assistant, Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant), an aspiring conductor, seems to have shrunk her life down to nothing with the expectation that she’ll eventually be handed a plum opportunity. Lydia’s wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), is first violin at the Berlin Philharmonic, and was there before Lydia found her way to being chief conductor, though now Sharon feels like another of her support staffers. A new Russian cellist, the winsome Olga (first-timer Sophie Kauer, a real-life musician), catches Lydia’s eye and starts benefitting from her approval at the expense of the orchestra’s hierarchy. Meanwhile, Krista, a former favorite of Lydia’s from the women’s conductor development program she’s become ambivalent about, haunts the proceedings from offscreen like a forlorn ghost. The only false note this otherwise precise film sounds is at a confrontation during a class at Juilliard, where a student’s choice of a contemporary piece veers into a fight over canon. The poor kid, played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist, has to self-describe “as a BIPOC pansexual,” a phrase plucked off a Twitter bio rather than likely to be spoken, and his faltering defense in the face of Lydia’s bulldozing on behalf of Bach is the one instance of Field tipping his hand.

But Field understands Lydia, and even empathizes with her, which is what makes Tár such a richly rendered creation. Lydia seems to move entirely through spaces of raw concrete, blonde wood, and floor-to-ceiling windows, and to be whisked around in private jets or her sleek car, and the film opts for long, fluid takes that cradle the character just as luxuriously. Hers is a high-end paradise she’ll eventually be cast out of, and while it’s entirely her own fault, Field stresses how her downfall came from her willingness to have art be foremost. That’s a convenient position to hold when it’s your art, and it’s other people’s hearts, dreams, and livelihoods that get thrown into the hopper on your behalf. Lydia, holed up in her old apartment as she works on a new composition, or teasing out the interpretation she wants from a group of musicians, bending their collective sound to her will, is a genuine talent and a true believer in her work. But in Tár, where everyone bends to Lydia like reeds in the wind, you understand how someone can fool themselves into believing that being a monster is just part of the work, that it’s a requirement, that everyone else is just there to enable the work to happen. And in the film’s perfect ending, Lydia finds a way for the work to continue, somewhat. It’s a finale so arid that it takes a beat to appreciate how funny it is, too.

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Tár Brilliantly Undoes an Ego Monster of an Artist