Todd Field’s first film in 16 years is a brooding meditation on genius, power and decimation.
For many viewers, much of the opening act of Tár, the new film from elusive writer/director Todd Field, will feel like watching something in a foreign language. Indeed, different languages are spoken throughout the film; English, German, Italian, and Russian all make an apperance. But beyond the actual literal different languages spoken, there is the thick vernacular of the world of classical music that Tár not so much utilizes but luxuriates in. Moreover, the film never holds your hand with any of it, rather expecting you to either pick up or be left behind. It will likely be an alienating experience for some, but there is a not-so-secret weapon at the core of the film that allows it to overcome the dense, technical language it seems to enjoy throwing at you. Namely, Cate Blanchett.
Cate Blanchett stars as the titular Lydia Tár, the most celebrated classical music composer of the contemporary age. That might seem like a small ordeal, but within the world of both the character and the film, it is a position of great esteem and, most insidiously, great power. Lydia is an undeniable celebrity, the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile interview that makes up a fair chunk of the film’s first act, and something of a living legend. A protege of Leonard Bernstein, she is attempting to replace her mentor as the universal face the American musical imagination. And her goal feels nearly in sight, with her the final piece of her personal white whale before her. Once she completes a recording of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, she will have completed Mahler’s full cycle of symphonies, an unheard of feat. She had done all this while both leveraging and downplaying the fact that she is the most celebrated and awarded female conductor in history.
This niche sort of storytelling, about both a genre of music and a unique position within that orchestra setting, might be far too much of an ask for an audience to buy into on an emotional level unless they are already deep within the orchestral world. But this is where Blanchett’s mastery as an anchoring actor become vital. Because Lydia is not just a musical genius; her very essence exudes music. Her patterns of circular speaking, her ability to jab and float through a conversation, her every physical movement through space, all communicate a sort of sweeping, overwhelming connection to the music she is centered in. While instructing the Berlin Symphony, her current home base, fully in German, without subtitles, the gist and spirit of her instruction are clear, simply based on Blanchett’s expert physical communication. She’s funny, she’s charming, she’s scary. Early on we watch Lydia guest lecturing at Julliard, and unambiguously bully a student who would dare question her judgment and expertise, refusing to let them get a word in. She is a bulldozer who commands respect, and she has put herself in position to demand it.
But as is the case with strong personalities like Lydia’s, there are cracks in the foundation. Namely, Lydia has a barely secret habit of singling out young, attractive talent and advancing their careers in exchange for sexual favors and discarding others who deny her advances. This comes to a head when one of Lydia’s previous victims, a promising conducting student who rejected her and was subsequently blackballed, commits suicide. The shockwaves of this incident, as well as the crushing anxiety that Lydia feels that she will actually be found out, begin to impact Lydia’s attempts at cementing her legacy.
It would be easy to categorize Tár as something of a revenge drama, a #MeToo parable where a powerful person faces the repercussions for their abusive actions. And in some ways, that is an accurate description. But what Field’s script and especially Blanchett’s performance ground this all in is revealing the totality of the abuser as a fully fleshed person, with stakes and weight to their unraveling. And though it never has sympathy for her, it does live in her head, in her point of view. By the time the waves come crashing down, we have gotten to know Lydia, her family, her friends, her world that in those opening moments seemed so strange and unknowable. We care about Mahler’s 5th, and the performance that means so much to the Berlin symphony. This is the real web that Tár as a film is weaving, showing the interconnectedness that powerful people can whirl around themselves and how their success or failure can domino and impact those around them.
Visually, Todd Field’s language is as absorbing as Blanchett’s performance. He uses wide shots of opulent settings, opts almost exclusively for long takes, and allows spaces to feel lived in and moved through. We are offered perfect windows into the disruption of Lydia’s reality, peering into her life, almost voyeuristically. But we also get lush depictions of the reality that is in fact fracturing. It is easy to see why Lydia fights so hard to protect where she had gotten to, as it seem remarkably comfortable. But as the dominoes start to fall, the end feels fairly inevitable.
Not that Tár ever feels exactly predictable. Field’s ability to incorporate aspects of horror, magical realism and genuine mystery into the tragic drama as it unfolds creates an uneasiness that makes you unsure what lies around the next corner. Shocking things happen to and through Lydia, but it never feels cheap or unearned. Rather, Field allows for the groundwork to feel naturally occurring, so that when it resolves, it pays off promises you didn’t even know he was making as a filmmaker. And just like a symphony, as themes appear, retreat, then interact and explode, it creates a full portrait of a life, equally flawed and inspiring, that is undone by hubris and pride. It is both hard to watch and hard to not be pulled in by.
But Tár demands to be watched, not just for a stellar central performance, but because of the eye it casts on a necessary story of our times, the unraveling of an abuser suddenly no longer protected by their genius, and how power can disrupt everything around them. Part morality tale, part current events, the whole of it swells to create a remarkable piece of art that is both painfully grounded and beautifully esoteric. In some ways, it is a shame it took Field a decade and a half to come out with a new movie. But you can’t argue when the end product is quite this vivid and necessary.