Our first glimpse of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) comes aboard a private jet, where the world-famous conductor, napping under a sleep mask, is being ferried to her next international appearance. In the foreground, on a cellphone wielded by an unseen user, a snarky exchange of texts hints cryptically at past indiscretions that would undermine the authority of this glamorously remote figure—but then, in an example of the point-counterpoint structure that governs this deeply musical movie, comes a long scene that places her once more in the seat of power. She’s onstage at the New Yorker Festival, where the writer Adam Gopnik, wryly playing himself, plies her with a series of questions that double as character backstory. Tár, we learn, is a former piano prodigy now serving as the first woman conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; she is an EGOT, having won all four of the most coveted American cultural prizes (the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony); she has just released an autobiography, Tár on Tár, and is preparing to conduct a live recording of Gustav Mahler’s notoriously tricky Symphony No. 5; and she is a spiky, quicksilver-smart, bullshit-averse lesbian who balks at praise for her feminist bona fides. Being a woman, she insists, has not hindered her professional success in any notable way. Her list of musical heroes includes some women (including the Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who wrote the score for this film), but her mentor and main inspiration is the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who broke down the barriers between high art and popular culture and became that rare thing: a classical music eminence who was also a beloved household name.
For all her admiration of Bernstein—later, at a low point, she will put on an old VHS tape of him lecturing and well up with uncharacteristic vulnerability—Tár has no apparent aspirations to the “beloved” part of that maestro’s public persona. The very next scene, filmed in an unobtrusively brilliant single take, finds her leading a master class for conducting students at Juilliard. One student tells her that, “as a BIPOC pangender person,” they have always resisted playing or conducting the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. As proof of that dead white composer’s place in the patriarchy, the student adduces Bach’s fathering of 20 children (over the course of two marriages in a time before medical birth control, but still). In response, Tár delivers an extended dressing-down that steers an unsteady course between harshness and cajolery. In the first of many acts of pedagogical seduction (some linked to would-be physical seduction, some not), she sits down at the piano with the student and goes through a short Bach passage, demonstrating how its call-and-response structure emphasizes what she calls “the question,” and using humor—including a mini-impression of the eccentric pianist Glenn Gould—to coax the reluctant student into a smile. Tár makes a passionate and convincing case, but then pushes her rhetoric a bit too far, waxing ironic about the student’s commitment to identity politics until the student storms out of the seminar calling her a “fucking bitch.”
Is she one? Like Bach composing a partita for keyboard, this deliberate, exacting, complex, and beautifully crafted movie emphasizes the question over the answer. Tár is only the third film writer-director Todd Field has made since his 2001 debut, In the Bedroom, and his first since Little Children in 2006. (Whether you know it or not, you have likely also seen Field’s much more prolific work as one of those “that guy” actors in the 1990s and mid-2000s, when he showed up in everything from Eyes Wide Shut and Walking and Talking to Twister.) In the Bedroom was a powerful drama about bereaved parenthood, while Little Children was an odd but effective mix of cheeky satire and queasy psychological study. Tár, Field’s first film not adapted from a novel or short story, takes the director somewhere entirely new: into the luxuriously appointed, fiercely competitive, enviable-yet-despicable world of classical musicians operating at the peak of their field. Much of the first hour of this 2-hour-and-38-minute film is devoted to introducing us to that world in minute but telling detail: Tár’s relationship with her assistant Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant), a seemingly loyal acolyte and aspiring conductor who may or may not be the one sending those snarky texts; Tár’s loving, troubled marriage to her orchestra’s first violinist, Sharon (the great German actress Nina Hoss), who shares her austere-yet-swanky apartment in Berlin and serves as primary parent to their adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevic); Tár’s complex web of frenemies in the music world, including the donor (Mark Strong) with whom she runs a scholarship program for women musicians, the assistant conductor (Allan Corduner) whom she is angling to oust from his current spot, and a former protégée named Krista Taylor, who appears only in flashes—a dream sequence, a glimpse of a social media post. (From here on, this discussion of the film will reveal some, not all, of the twists from the second half, so proceed with that in mind if you haven’t seen it yet.)
Early on it becomes clear that something must have happened between Tár and Krista. The latter has been bombarding the former with gifts and pleas for a meeting, which Tár crisply instructs her assistant to ignore in the interest of the young woman’s mental health. Later on, when the news comes that Krista has died by suicide and an inquest is being conducted about her time under Tár’s mentorship, the conductor orders her assistant to delete her history of email correspondence with Krista. Because this film unfolds elliptically, with tactical omissions, we never fully learn what took place between Krista and Tár. But the boardroom murmurings and social media chatter about the incident—and ultimately, at least one damaging report in the New York Post—make it clear that theirs was only one of many of Tár’s master-pupil relationships to have raised eyebrows.
The conductor’s marriage grows strained, especially when a recent arrival to the Berlin ensemble, a young Russian cellist named Olga (real-life musician Sophie Kauer), becomes Tár’s new favorite. The orchestra’s sessions rehearsing the Mahler symphony get ever more Mahler-esque in their larger-than-life psychodrama. One day Tár shows up with an injured face, claiming she was the victim of a street attack, when the truth—that she was unwisely traipsing around the basement of an abandoned building in pursuit of Olga—would reveal too much. Later, she gives Olga the plum solo part in an upcoming performance, while the first-chair cellist who has spent years waiting patiently for such an opportunity swallows her resentment and smiles. Slowly it becomes clear that every relationship in Tár’s life is transactional, with the exception of her love for her daughter. Even there, though, Tár’s parental protectiveness has a cruel edge. When her child is bullied at school, Tár locates the perpetrator on the playground and icily threatens her with unspoken but dire consequences if it ever happens again. This is female power as we seldom see it on screen in 2022: not cute girlboss badassery but masterful, if sadistic, control of the self (and, more ominously, of others.)
If Tár were a satisfying moral fable about a gifted but malevolent woman’s well-earned fall from grace, it would be so much easier to write about, and so much less interesting to discuss. Instead, as our (anti-?)heroine faces the repercussions of what appears to be years of at best unethical and at worst illegal behavior toward those with less power than her (which is to say, almost everyone), the questions keep multiplying. What exactly has Tár been accused of, and are the allegations both credible enough and serious enough to warrant her expulsion from the heights of the classical music scene? When a video circulates that has been edited to make that classroom confrontation at Juilliard look and sound more abusive and bigoted than Tár actually seemed in the moment, are we meant to take it as an example of targeted witch-hunting or a necessary recontextualization? Late in the film, when Tár is reduced to conducting an orchestra for an audience of cosplaying video gamers at what appears to be a fan convention in Southeast Asia, should we feel satisfaction at her comeuppance or pathos at the thought of her squandered talent? The analogy with disgraced Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career ended after a series of sexual abuse allegations (the first of which were similarly reported in the New York Post), is never made explicit, though Levine is once mentioned by name. If the main character of Tár had been a man, how would we feel differently about his actions? And in making her instead an attractive and charismatic woman, is Field stacking the deck in the character’s favor or encouraging us to interrogate our own assumptions about gender and power? What if we had seen Tár’s deeds ourselves, from the perspective of her alleged victims, rather than only oblique glimpses filtered through Tár’s own experience?
It’s to Tár’s eternal credit that, without being wishy-washy, it allows the audience the time, space, and breathing room (not to mention the faith in our intelligence) to sit with these questions all the way through, and well after, the closing credits. Cate Blanchett’s titanic, almost fanatically well-researched performance—she switches effortlessly between English and German with a soupçon of French thrown in, does her own piano playing, and conducts a real orchestra with utter verisimilitude—thrillingly embodies both Tár’s intense charisma and her monstrous skill at manipulation. It’s impossible not to feel conflicted about this self-destructive whirlwind of a protagonist: We are appalled by her selfishness even as a part of us wants to remain forever in the company of her ready wit and hyperattuned musical ear. We identify with Tár’s admirers, both because we feel empathy for her calculating misuse of them and because, like them, we can’t stop wanting her to really be everything she presents herself as: the uncompromising artist, the intellectually generous mentor, the loving parent and devoted spouse.
On a technical level, Tár’s thematic ambitions are supported by its meticulous formal craft. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s camera floats unhurriedly through a rarefied world of pale, neutral colors and posh interior spaces, letting us feel both the luxurious comfort and the suffocating privilege of the protagonist’s cosseted life. The ingenious sound design (with a recurring motif of intrusive noises that break through Tár’s attempts to work and concentrate) keeps the audience perpetually on edge. My only cavil would be that one melodramatic late plot turn strains credibility in its attempt to provide ample reason for Tár’s eventual banishment. But the final few scenes, with the displaced protagonist wandering alone through an unfamiliar city where she’s been invited as a guest conductor, return to the tone of cool, keenly observed detachment that characterizes most of the rest of the movie. The adjectives that come to mind to describe Tár apply also to its protagonist: Todd Field’s third film is magisterial, enigmatic, self-contradictory, and wickedly seductive. Like her, it invites you to think and feel intensely about the nature of performance, art, and fame. But unlike Lydia Tár (who, as we learn in a scene at her childhood home, is a self-created persona, an elaborate alter ego for an ordinary working-class girl born Linda Tarr), Tár the movie is the real thing.