Synopsis: Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) – composer, conductor, academic, author – is a genius. Of this there is no doubt. And as a crowning achievement to a glittering career, she prepares to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. However, when a former protégé of hers commits suicide, a very public inquest is conducted into Lydia Tár’s life, revealing some less than savoury details about the way she wields her power and influence.
1. Tár is monumental. This is not just a statement about the film’s quality (which is unimpeachable), but about its weightiness and import. It distills the zeitgeist of our contemporary period and serves it up in a brew that is both intoxicating and potent. All the buzzwords we associate with the discourse of the day – cancel culture, identity politics, #metoo, separation of the art from the artist – are all present in one way or another in Tár, but it would be a grievous mistake to view it as polemic or diatribe. Instead, what Tár aspires towards (and succeeds) is to be art. If you will forgive some pretension, the Romantic poet John Keats once said that Shakespeare possessed the rare gift of ‘negative capability’, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. In this aspect (and many more), Tár is positively Shakespearean, a postmodern take on classical tragedy that plunges right into complexity and complication without ever taking the easy or simplistic route. And lest I scare you away from the film with all this highfalutin’ rhetoric, it needs to be said that Tár is also one of the funniest comedies that I’ve seen in a while, albeit one whose humour falls in the bone-dry and pitch-black categories. This is that rarest of films – a work of art for adults that aims to rigorously dissect the milieu from which it arises. It’s a goddamn masterpiece.
2. And one of the biggest reasons why is its lead performance, because sometimes the most obvious answers are the correct ones. Cate Blanchett’s work in Tár is pinnacle-level acting. Like, this is at the level of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007) level or Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence (1974). It’s easily the best performance that Blanchett has ever given, which says a lot considering that this might be the best actor of her generation, who has given performances in The Aviator (2004) I’m Not There (2007), Blue Jasmine (2013) and Carol (2015) that would be generational career peaks for any other performer. 1 There has been a host of memes and jokes pretending that Tár is a biopic and that Lydia Tár is a real person, and this honestly speaks to how entirely Blanchett disappears into the role. Every single aspect from voice to posture to movement to expression feels less like acting and more like channeling a spirit of a person who seems so real that it’s no wonder why the culture has started to question her fictitiousness. Above all, Blanchett’s ability to convey genius is what really makes this performance an all-timer. We’ve seen so many ‘socially maladjusted male geniuses’ that the likes of Bojack Horseman and Community have mocked the tics and tropes that make up this particular cliché, and thankfully Blanchett swerves all the obvious hurdles. It’s necessary for the moral calculus of the film that Lydia Tár be a bona fide genius, and all the scenes where Blanchett presents Tár at work establishes without doubt that this is someone who is extremely intelligent, extremely charismatic, and extremely flawed. On that note, it’s also so refreshing to see a presentation of ‘genius’ that makes it crystal clear that ‘genius’ is something that is performed, which again stands out from the norm of ‘oh he can’t just help himself from being a dick, he’s so smart’. Of course, Blanchett is not simply acting against herself, and plaudits must be given to Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant (as Lydia’s long-suffering wife and assistant respectively) for their canny, measured performances that hide untold depths of rage and betrayal behind practiced veneers of placid support.
3. So if Blanchett’s lead performance is one obvious reason for Tár‘s greatness, the other one is Todd Field’s direction. Field, who has not made a movie in sixteen years, has come roaring back with a vengeance, and time has not dulled the impeccable artistry that made him so lauded starting from In The Bedroom (2001). The scene that has rightly garnered the most critical attention for its craft is the Juilliard lecture scene, which is filmed in a single shot. Simply distilling this scene down to ‘wow one-shot so cool’ is however, doing it a disservice. Rather than have the camera constantly on the move 2 or have it locked down for an uncomfortably long period of time 3, Field finds an interesting middle ground, as the camera prowls the lecture theatre whenever Lydia is on the move, and remains still when she roots herself to a single spot. It is a perfect encapsulation of her ability to ‘conduct’ time and space, and also of Field’s ability to trap the audience in a situation that steadily escalates in tension and intensity. Yet the obvious perfection of this scene should not detract from the more subtle excellence of Field’s directorial touch that pervades the rest of the film. I don’t personally ascribe to the ‘One Perfect Shot’ club that exists on Film Twitter, but there is no denying how every single shot here is so perfectly composed that you could take any random still of it and frame it in a dorm room. But aesthetics mean nothing unless they contribute to theme and narrative, and in this regard, Tár is unimpeachable. The bleakness of the autumnal lighting, the stark brutalist minimalism of Lydia’s home vs. the fussy old-world cosiness of her Berlin work studio, the shabby Americana of her mother’s home – Tár conveys so much meaning through setting thanks to the impeccable camerawork, lighting and mise-en-scène.
4. And continuing with Field’s direction, there is no escaping the spectre of his old mentor, because this is the closest that anyone has ever gotten to Stanley Kubrick. Field starred in Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) 4, and by his own admission, hung around on set far longer than his role dictated to learn as much as he could from the aging master. He succeeded. Kubrick’s influence is suffused throughout the entirety of Tár, from the aforementioned perfection of its craftsmanship to its unrelentingly bleak perspective to the morbidity of its humour to the way in which the very fibre of its being seems to be steeped in mystery and symbolism. This is a particularly Kubrickian move that has fallen out of vogue in our ‘Youtube Critic Explains the Ending’ culture, where any and all ambiguity must have some kind of answer to it. Where do the screams plaguing Lydia come from? Who is the one turning on her metronome in the middle of the night? What does the symbol drawn by her former student and her daughter mean? Who is secretly filming and mocking her? Who cares? Not me, that’s for sure. Rather than grasp around desperately for answers, Field is entirely happy to have all these mysteries simply exist in his movie to create a sense of something far greater and more enigmatic, to the extent that it feels almost mystical or quasi-religious. It is this sense of terrible unknowability that makes Tár, for all its references to high culture and art, strike some kind of deep primal chord within.
5. But of course, Tár is not simply about the abstract mysteries of life. Indeed, it is very concerned with the here and now. The movie (this is not much of a spoiler) establishes pretty early on that Lydia Tár is an abuser, and has been systematically using her power and reputation to groom young women for a very long time. This is, of course, a thorny and extremely relevant contemporary issue. And, as with every issue of this stripe, there are two ways to deal with it. The first is the simple way. Here are the bad guys. They do bad things. Here are the good guys. They do good things. The good guys defeat the bad guys. Order is restored. Hip hip hooray. You’ve probably seen this movie, or at least, you’ve seen the trailers. Spotlight (2015), Bombshell (2019) and She Said (2022) come to mind. 5 Regular readers of this website will know I sometimes like to play a game where I imagine the shitty version of a good film. In the case of Tár, I won’t call it the shitty version as much as the simple version. In this version, Lydia Tár is Lionel Tár. The people he interacts with are split into either victims or enablers. The victims are pure as the driven snow, and the enablers are moustache-twirling villains. Lionel is categorically a Bad Person, and will probably be revealed at some point to be a fraud who is not really a genius at all. Lionel will go to jail, and a sombre title card (white font on black background, naturally) will sombrely list what happened to its principal characters before providing a sombre reminder of how many women are abused daily. Tár doesn’t play this game, and it is the reason why it will endure in contrast to the other films mentioned earlier. There is no question that Lydia Tár is a genius. She’s a lesbian, making her a two-fer minority in a field primarily dominated by white men. There is a level of agency exercised by the victims of Lydia’s abuse, to the extent that they are complicit in the way they willingly attach themselves to her for favours or personal gain. The cellist (Sophie Kauer) unfairly raised to prominence by Lydia is actually extremely talented. And of course, Blanchett’s performance is so charismatic and forceful that one is naturally drawn to her and her side. And this, more than anything, is why Tár will endure over its more simplistic ilk, because it refuses to unbalance the scales. Tár‘s insistence on muddying the situation lends it far greater moral fibre than its shitty simple version, because it says resoundingly that regardless of all that is in our protagonist’s favour, what she does (and has done) is unequivocally wrong.
6. Though of course, it does Tár a great disservice to simply boil it down to ‘Cancel/Consequence Culture: 6 The Movie’. This is a film that is about so much more than that, from the perception of genius to the artistic process to the inexorable passage of time. Above all, this is a proper film in the way that so few movies are any more. Through its refusal to simplify or provide easy answers for any of the complex issues it deals with, Tár also separates itself from the rash of ‘message movies’ that have cropped up in the last decade or so. Even its dense symbolism and willingness to allow for unsolved mysteries in its plot feels like a rejoinder to Cinemasins-style ‘plot hole’ criticism. 7 If Tár wasn’t so contemporary and so perfectly plugged-into the discourse of the day, it might also feel like something plucked out of the New Hollywood 70s, an artifact of that brief time when mainstream and arthouse collided to create high-budget and high-quality productions that told serious stories with serious themes. With absolutely impeccable work from Blanchett and Field, Tár towers over almost anything else I’ve seen since for a good half-decade (with one obvious exception). It is a tight, impeccably crafted piece of machinery that also feels like freewheeling improvisation. It is timely and timeless. It is an absolutely monumental work of art that reawakens my faith in motion pictures. Tár is cinematic perfection, and a reminder that at its peak, no other medium has such enduring power.
Recommendation: Must Watch
- I’ve not seen either Elizabeth film, so I can’t judge those.
- See: Goodfellas (1991) or Children of Men (2006)
- See: the more formalistic ‘slow cinema’ works of Michael Haneke, Steve McQueen or Tsai Ming-Liang
- A masterpiece among masterpieces.
- At this point, I will caveat that I have not seen the latter two films, but I will just add that it’s really rich that an industry that protected and enabled Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein for decades can suddenly decide to make movies patting themselves on the back for the belated and incommensurate punishments the two received.
- Choose the one that coheres more with your politics.
- The fucking nadir of media literacy, by the way.