Cate Blanchett swallows Tár whole and spits out bullets in return. The role, of a fictional classical conductor somersaulting into her own downfall, was written by director Todd Field solely with her in mind. It’s a performance that functions as a total culmination, the crystallised form of all the women Blanchett’s played in the past – from Elizabeth I to Lilith in Nightmare Alley – who act like they have total control but may actually be hollow on the inside. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a single shot of those ice-blue eyes. A little tension in the muscles and they take on a self-satisfied feeling of mastery over their subject.
It’s not required that we sympathise with Blanchett’s Lydia Tàr. Her talent is plain – she’s a protégée of Leonard Bernstein and is one of the few winners of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award – but she’s also cruel, manipulative, and abusive. She belittles and dismisses her own assistant (Noémie Merlant), simply because she’s grown bored of her. Slowly, allegations of misconduct start to surface, and her rivals (including Mark Strong’s amateur conductor Eliot Kaplan) leap into self-serving action.
Tár is essentially about our current moment, and all the whirlpools of discourse around #MeToo and “cancel culture”, but rarely in a way that feels like a polemic or a pat on the back. It answers the question of “should we separate the art from the artist?” by laying bare how impossible a demand that is.
Field, certainly, does pull his punches at several key junctures. The allegations that come to light never materially exist beyond a one-sentence newspaper clipping, a suggestion that Lydia has “enticed and groomed young women” in her orchestra – a phrase too vague to pin down the severity of her actions. She exists then only as a symbolic vessel for what is bad and powerful, severed from her own sins. Would there already be so many Tár memes on the internet if Field had chosen to depict exactly where her obsessive interest in fledgling cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) would have ended up if karmic retribution had never intervened?
Secondly, Lydia, while guest-lecturing at Julliard, takes up arms against a student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who despises Bach for his “misogyny”. But they’re given a parodically weak and entirely fantastical grudge against the great composer (supposedly based on the fact he fathered so many children?), purely so Lydia can heroically discard them as a brainwashed devotee of social media. The film would never dare lock horns with the real case against the classical canon.
But Lydia herself is so compellingly constructed, a perfect synthesis of hypocrisy and denial, that Field’s shortcuts never cost the film much of its nuance. She’s known for commissioning work by female composers like Hildur Guðnadóttir (who, in a meta turn, composed Tár’s own dread-filled score), but wears her own success as proof that the bias against women is dead and gone. She bemoans “cancel culture”, but has forced the blacklisting of a former mentee to conceal evidence of her misdeeds. She prizes talent but undermines it in others. And within the cold, brutalist spaces of production designer Marco Bittner Rosser, there’s little escape from the full force of her undoing, either for the audience or for those in Lydia’s own orbit.
It’s striking that Field chooses to split his film’s credits. Tár opens with all those who work behind the scenes, who rarely receive a taste of fervent adulation – the gaffers, the assistants, the location scouts – and ends with the actors and musicians who sit atop the pyramid. Lydia may refuse to see it, but Tár reminds us that genius never lives alone.
Dir: Todd Field. Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong. 15, 158 minutes
‘Tár’ is in cinemas from 13 January