As we meet Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), somewhere in the deep of middle age, she’s already a woman with nothing left to prove. When she sits for an interview at The New Yorker Festival (where Adam Gopnik plays himself), Tár’s résumé is read aloud, and her accomplishments are stunning. She’s an EGOT winner, and the resident conductor for the Cleveland, Boston, and New York philharmonics. Her takes on numerous pieces are considered legendary. What’s more, Tár herself is a looming, luminous personality in the world of symphonic music. She’s known everywhere, respected by millions.
Tár is an intense, expansive character study of how someone who has done so much can plummet from the heavens. As the film opens, her intellectual charisma bounds from the constraints of the New Yorker interview. She plans an ambitious production of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. This should be the peak of her professional Mt. Everest. But, we soon learn, there are two sides to Lydia Tár, and the other is about to go public.
A key sequence occurs as Tár steps in as a guest lecturer at Juilliard. She addresses a sparse gathering of aspiring composers, before zeroing in on Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a young pangender student in the first row. When Max confides that he doesn’t enjoy the works of Bach, Tár needles him for reasons.
Turns out, Bach was a misogynist, with a very ugly and very public sexual history that could justifiably alter opinions of his oeuvre. On the surface, Tár laments identity politics and cancel culture, and urges Max to veer from the socio-cultural implications and drill down to the music’s essence. At the same time, there’s a more insidious motive in play here: As Max grows uncomfortable, she picks on him. She clamps a hand on his nervous, bouncing leg and crowds into his personal space. When Tár attempts to turn Max’s reasoning back onto him, their dialogue grows heated. In the aftermath of this tense exchange, Tár emerges with the same casual confidence. She not only believes in her correctness, but also in the teflon durability that comes with success and celebrity. As a public figure, she’s too big–too crucial–to be fallible.
Or maybe not. As Tár relocates to Berlin, cracks begin to form in her facade. It’s here we meet Sharon (Nina Hoss), her fragile wife who also serves as the philharmonic’s concertmaster. They’ve adopted Petra (Mila Bobojevik), a precocious girl who serves as the brightest light in Tár’s life. At the same time, the orchestra gains a new cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer), to whom Tár develops an instant attraction. She gives Olga preferential treatment and special attention, all in the hopes of building a sexual relationship.
We learn that Tár’s advances on Olga are just the latest in an ongoing pattern. Rumors have long circulated of her predatory behavior, often directed at potential proteges. A prior victim, Krista, sends threatening clues and unsettling emails. These raise the alarm of Francesca (Noémie Merlant), Tár’s long-suffering assistant. More evidence emerges, placing both her personal and professional well-being in peril.
Writer-director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) unspools a long fuse for Lydia Tár’s destruction, and it sizzles for most of the film’s 158 minutes. His screenplay is dense and meticulous, and is packed with technical lingo and academic dissection of orchestral music and the work behind it. Field pitches it to be deliberately difficult, presumably to immerse you in its sprawling world by the sheer force of his total commitment.
Meanwhile, his direction is another matter. If Field’s writing is cerebral and verbose (and magnanimous, I expect him to win an Oscar for it), his visuals are resolutely mannered and minimalist. His work behind the camera echoes Lumet or Kubrick (Field appeared in Eyes Wide Shut) in the tidy poetry of its patience and restraint. The combative classroom scene is presented in one unbroken take, as Field’s camera maneuvers around Tár and Max like an invisible dance partner. Many scenes follow a similar approach: As with Lumet, Field seems content to step back and allow his actors to act.
Blanchett obliges this leeway with a performance for the ages. She’s already won two Oscars (The Aviator, Blue Jasmine), and her work here will likely capture a third. As Tár, she fills every room with her intimidating energy. Later, as #MeToo coils and tightens around her, Blanchett displays an emotional and spiritual destruction that strips Tár down to the studs. This is as strong as everything she’s ever done.
Tár never quite escapes the feel of a stage play. On the plus side, it’s a very good stage play. The writing, directing, and acting fall into perfect rhythm. Even at 158 minutes, it never feels overlong. At the same time, Field gives us a lot to process. Don’t be surprised if Lydia Tár’s sad saga lingers long after the credits roll. I’m not sure where this year’s Oscar race began, but rest assured that Tár will be there when it ends.
158 min. R. On demand and in theaters.