Tár is one of those rare films about a specific art that just about anyone watching it can embrace, even if they have no connection or previous knowledge of the art itself beyond a vague familiarity. In this case, the specific art is conducting, where a single person directs the musical performance of an entire orchestra. Now, you don’t have to know a single thing about conducting and all its modern politics in order to appreciate what Tár is after as a film. Because the art of conducting is besides the point. It’s a backdrop, a low hum, painting the film’s sharp allegory about the people who wield power at the expense of others and their own creative legacies.
Put another way, the general sermon Tár preaches can essentially apply to any occupation where traditional workplace hierarchies not only exist but are strictly enforced. Such as the director of a film. Or the executive producer of a film, perhaps. Later this year, we’ll see a different film addressing a particularly notorious figure that sparked a movement against these power structures several years ago. While that film will undoubtedly lay out its case through literal storytelling, Tár chooses the riskier approach. It flips the gender, obviously, but also the art form. From people who make movies, a business that tends to be judged as corrupt and hollow in its glamor, to the more broadly respected institutions of symphony orchestras. By doing this, Tár delivers the same message of the #MeToo movement in a way that might actually make a universal impression.
Tár is the third feature film directed by Todd Field — his last one being Little Children in 2006, a not-too-dissimilar film from Tár in how it builds tension like a kettle about to boil over. A musician himself, Field also wrote the screenplay and keenly builds his world out of believably mundane plot machinations, at least in the early parts of the film.
The scenes are purposefully banal in their set up, mostly featuring two characters talking for extended periods of time in some sort of relaxed setting, like lunch or an interview, as the audience gets to know Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett in one of her most exceptional performances to date, an impressive achievement for someone who is already a proven master of her craft.
Blanchett plays Tár as a chillingly real human being. A person with seemingly as much potential for outward kindness as she also does for abject cruelty. But not the type of cruelty reserved for the black and white senses of a Hollywood movie. Tár isn’t Whiplash‘s Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). She’s many things, but she’s not Abigail Hill from The Favourite or Nathan Bateman from Ex Machina. She’s the type of cruel that cuts deeper. So casual in her disregard for others, including her own loved ones, that it comes off as indifference more than it does heated passion or dishonesty for the sake of it.
Lydia Tár is only really passionate about people and efforts that contribute to her lasting legacy. Like her daughter, an extension of herself, and her orchestra, a collective that bends and moves to her every whim. The film shies away from explicitly showing us Tár’s worst actions, leaving them mostly as implications, similar to how we don’t really see her at her best creatively.
We know what she’s capable of and what she has done through her reactions to being called out. Or when she sees something in the world that reminds her of her own misdeeds. Or hears something that she can’t place and starts to unravel as the two sides of herself constantly conflict with one another the same way her personal and professional lives do. It’s a film where we only really witness the middle of a person, not their best or worst. Even though we know both exist.
Tár’s complexity is also revealed through how other characters watch and observe her. There’s something to be said about how artists are known for being observers, while most everyone else tends to be a participant or consumer. Yet the women in Tár’s life do the most observing we see. Her assistant, Francesca — played hauntingly by Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant — tells stories that could fill entire movies just through a few seconds of the camera lingering on her eyes and facial expressions. Tár’s wife, Sharon — played with melancholic stoicism by My Little Sister‘s Nina Hoss — also happens to be her concertmaster, or lead first-violin player, further blurring the lines between Tár’s home and work.
The film isn’t a full-throated condemnation of these issues. It’s not saying that you can’t blend your work and life. The film is utterly disinterested in examining what people call “cancel culture” or what the future of the arts really is when people are held accountable for abuse. Instead, the film pushes the audience to make a connection with a bad person and see and hear the world through their eyes and ears. Not to elevate bad behavior, but to reveal its complexity and how it manifests in people who should theoretically know better.
Let’s be clear about what the film is doing, here. It’s framing its point-of-view character — a protagonist who serves as her own antagonist — as an American lesbian living in Berlin. She’s not the stereotypical villain by usual Hollywood standards. This choice isn’t the film trying to moralize any label over another. Instead, it’s showing and demonstrating the age-old maxim. That absolute power corrupts absolutely. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a typically nice person part of a marginalized community. We’re all capable of inflicting harm, even on people who look exactly like us.
If that’s all Tár was, then Field would’ve made a competent film that effectively entertains and gives its audience something interesting to chew on. But the film’s final section, what is probably the conceptual opposite of an encore, drives home something a little more “new” for stories like this. That there is a chance for redemption, for facing the music as it were. Just don’t expect much in the way of applause.
Tár is now playing in limited release. The film will expand to more theaters on October 14. Watch the official trailer here.