Early on in “Tár,” Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a world-renowned conductor, leads a workshop at Juilliard. What follows is a clash of perspectives between herself and a conducting student, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), and the contention between the two is all too recognizable in an era of digital-age discourse on “cancel culture” that echoes ad infinitum. Lydia coolly criticizes Max for refusing to play a Bach piece due to their discomfort as a “BIPOC pangender person” given Bach’s presumed misogyny. Her castigation of Max is aired with a derision that is lofty and insular — qualities that mark the film’s creeping descent into the narrowness of Lydia’s subjectivity amid the toppling of her power. By the scene’s end, one is left with not only the foreboding hubris that suffuses the scene, but also the ambiguity of space between Lydia’s perspective and the film’s.
“Tár,” written and directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Todd Field, introduces Lydia Tár, an eminent conductor-composer, through a lengthy expository scene that recounts her litany of achievements as she sits down for an interview with real-life The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. The narrow specificity of the scene, marked by the cavalier mention of a series of arty, grandiose cultural touchstones, cleverly sets the stage for Lydia’s inexorable downfall. Lydia is the first female composer to have conducted leading orchestras in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. She has established a program that commissions music from female composers, playing their pieces alongside esteemed works of the orchestral canon and has even surpassed the likes of Stephen Sondheim as an EGOT title-holder.
Lydia runs a repertory that mentors aspiring female conductors. Francesca (Noémie Merlant), a former student of Lydia’s, works tirelessly as she clings to Lydia’s promise to secure her a conducting post in Berlin, her ambition simmering underneath the assiduousness she directs toward her job. This includes handling grievances from other former students such as Krista (Sylvia Flote), who appears to be stalking Lydia, while Lydia thwarts Krista’s career by discouraging orchestra administrators from hiring her. The film offers slight intimations that Lydia has had sexual relationships with both women, which would situate these dynamics in an entirely different context. But these insinuations are cleverly etched with enough calculated inconspicuousness so as to construct a world that fits into Lydia’s denial of misconduct.
It is through this lens that “Tár” confounds, as the film embodies Lydia’s viewpoint throughout. The quotidian events in Lydia’s life are depicted in minute detail, from her surreal dreams to her environment of ornate sophistication, which makes the respective omission of her memories of misdeeds all the more deliberate and glaring. For the most part, it’s a troubling, hauntingly effective choice that illustrates the consequences of the self-constructed mental schism that results when individuals ascend to power and privilege.
The film’s imagery matches the bleakness of its subject matter. Drab gray skies harmonize with austere, rigid concrete buildings, giving way to garish neon in the film’s final moments. The movie’s aesthetics coalesce with its thematic inclinations, exhibiting a formally synergistic direction.
Periodically, however, the undertaking of Lydia’s lens renders “Tár” a regressive bent. At the start of the film, Lydia’s criticism of Max and “cancel culture” is intellectualized and rendered intricate opposite Max’s argument, which is given all the refinement and nuance of a child’s reasoning. Later, however, the primary publication that publicizes the accusations of misconduct against Lydia is the prattling New York Post, rather than the dignified The New Yorker that illustriously celebrates her accomplishments. The film also seemingly scolds those who rush to judgment in regards to what is and isn’t shown of Lydia’s offenses. The gray with which these moments are incised calls into question the politics of the film’s framing device.
Over the film’s runtime, Lydia recurrently jolts awake from her sleep to a ticking clock. “Time’s up,” the clock seems to pronounce quite literally. It’s one of the film’s many ironies that Lydia doesn’t grasp. It is this very strangeness of “Tár” that causes it to linger in one’s consciousness, despite some of its tics not cohering into an assured artwork.
A harrowing piece of cinema, “Tár” is striking, for better or worse, for its concurrent instinct to confront and epitomize the ethos of prestige and transgression.