Chilly, severe, distancing, utterly captivating and made with formidable filmmaking IQ, Tár is a movie very much in the mold of its ever-present central character: world-renowned conductor and fully functioning sociopath Lydia Tár.
Played by an Oscar-worthy Cate Blanchett beneath a permafrost of icy disdain, she’s a character built to wander into the midst of the culture wars shooting from the hip. She feels like the creation of a filmmaker who has spent a decade or so doomscrolling on Twitter, absorbing all the vitriol and polarisation, which might be the case considering that its American writer-director, Todd Field, hasn’t been behind the camera since his arresting domestic drama Little Children back in 2006.
It’s been our loss. From the moment the end credits appear, incongruously, in its opening moments, as if the film itself is tuning up, he treats us to an elegant but edgy tour of a high-art world laden with ego and hidden pitfalls. Like Black Swan, a more feverish psychological portrait set in a similarly highfalutin milieu, it charts the murky terrain where passion tips into obsession and raw ambition into something much darker.
Blanchett’s Tár is an EGOT winner who claims to have flourished under the mentorship of Leonard Bernstein. We meet her chugging pills ahead of an on-stage rendezvous with a New Yorker interviewer. It’s a scene that spells out what she wants the world to see of her, rather than who she actually is: a sanitised, low-Tár version, motivated by music above all else – and to the point of self-abnegation. ‘You must stand in front of the audience and God and obliterate yourself’, she later explains of her holy undertaking. Watching her in action, it seems less grandiloquent rhetorical flourish, more a statement of fact.
Tár is built to wander into the midst of the culture wars shooting from the hip
A key scene comes before the action decamps to Berlin, where Tár is due to conduct the prestigious Berliner Philharmoniker in a recorded performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (if you already know it as ‘The Five’, collect a pink wedge). An initially high-spirited exchange with one of her Juilliard students becomes a public demolition job in which Tár wields her formidable intellect like a hatchet. The student rails against the music of ‘cis, male, white composers’ like Bach. ‘The narcissism of small differences makes for the most boring of conformity’ she snaps back. The exchange will come back to bite her via a heavily edited video on social media.
Tár self-mockingly identifies as a ‘U-Haul lesbian’ and there’s a feeling that even with her wife, concertmaster (Nina Hoss), the keys are still in the ignition with the engine running. Most of her relationships are purely transactional: a cordial bond with Mark Strong’s less able but equally ambitious conductor is soon stripped of its veneer of camaraderie; a gifted cellist is thrown to the wolves; a loyal assistant (Noémie Merlant) cruelly overlooked for promotion; even a school kid is cowed in terrifying fashion for bullying the beloved daughter of her partner. She is, by any metrics, a terrible person.
It’s provocative, often uncomfortable but always mesmerising
Yet Blanchett brings her – and all the brilliant, messy, polarising strains of her acerbic personality – to vivid life in a way that dares you to judge or dismiss her.
Field layers the film with textures and tensions that hint at a deeper psychological fracture within Tár – ghosts of past wounds still too raw to process. The fact that she’s the one who inflicted them doesn’t detract from the pathos. She’s a human in a state of suffering.
It’s the refreshing treatise underpinning this provocative, often uncomfortable but always mesmerising character study. That people are messy and complicated and should always be understood, if not excused. As Jean Renoir noted, everyone has their reasons. Tár’s are just more messed up than most.
In US theaters now and UK cinemas Jan 13.