Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is on top of the world. She’s a highly respected classical music conductor, an EGOT winner, and is on the verge of recording her sure-to-be masterpiece: a live performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. All these facts and more are laid out in a bravura early scene in Tár—the first film in nearly two decades from writer-director Todd Field—in which Tár is interviewed on stage by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself.
From Gopnik’s fawning pre-written introduction to the ephemeral laughs of the adoring New York audience, the rarefied air is so thick, and so expertly conjured, that you could practically cut it with a knife. Tár herself holds court with a holier-than-thou faux humbleness that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in the company of a culturally anointed “genius.” To every rehearsed question comes a rehearsed answer, insights about creativity and process dispensed as if they were off-the-cuff yet still holy writ. It would be insufferable if the world-renowned Tár wasn’t so damn good at making her high-art con job so performatively exhilarating.
This role is in many respects perfect for Blanchett, a brilliant technician whose talent is making you marvel at her dramatic method. When Tár has lunch with one of her sycophantic benefactors, the beyond-oily Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), she futzes with a piece of bread in the most actorly of ways, taking hungry bites and brushing away errant crumbs with a contradictory big-gesture subtlety. We’re meant to notice how understated she’s being in the moment, how she can carry on a conversation while also doing this other bit of business. It’s the Meryl Streep style of acting, of which Blanchett is an often shameless exemplar, and the argument could be made that Tár is also a performer in this vein, to the point that one of the occasional thrills of Field’s film is being unable to determine where Blanchett ends and Tár begins.
The problem is that Field has bigger thematic fish to fry. Tár, as is very deliberately revealed over the course of its leisurely two-hour-plus running time, is a story about cancel culture, its protagonist standing in for any number of art-world maestros felled by accusations of impropriety and misconduct. The obvious parallel is James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera music director whose gleaming professional reputation was tarnished after he was credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults. In this case, though, Tár’s transgressions stem more from her being either a set-in-her-ways bully or a lecherously seductive favoritist.
Throughout, Tár pokes and prods at her long-suffering assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), whose work, to her mind, is never quite good enough to merit career elevation. She condescendingly dresses down a pansexual Black student (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) at Julliard who takes issue with the canonization of dead white male composer Johann Sebastian Bach. And in Berlin—where Tár lives with her professional and romantic partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss, whose graceful naturalism casts a harsh light on Blanchett’s wanton showiness)—she lords over every participant in the orchestra she oversees, particularly the preternaturally talented cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), to whom she takes a more than passing fancy.
Field and his crew keep Tár consistently compelling visually and aurally. The Julliard sequence is captured by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister in a showstopping single take that expertly attunes us to every uncomfortable word and gesture. (This confrontation is later sliced up into a bite-sized social media video that muddies the nuances and shifts the power dynamics considerably.) And unearthly sounds follow Tár wherever she goes, be it a distant scream that seems to have no source or an eerie low-level hum that underscores certain scenes, as if portending the reckoning that our antiheroine will inevitably face.
Sadly, once Tár plummets from her lofty perch, so does the film. Neither Field nor Blanchett seem quite decided on whether Tár’s comeuppance is a grand tragedy or a cosmic joke. Blanchett’s look-at-me-but-actually-don’t style of acting significantly undercuts the former reading, since Tár never comes off as fully human—more a straw-man manifestation of a current cultural malaise. And Field’s innate humorlessness, evident since his grimly self-serious debut, In the Bedroom, makes for an ill and often insensitive fit when tending toward the mordant.
A late scene in which Tár retches at the mere thought of a transactional lesbian encounter strikes especially discordant notes, as does the ending, which turns an entire far-flung nation into a touristic kind of hell for our protagonist. Considering how absorbingly orchestrated the film is in many other instances, it’s a shame how thoroughly it loses the tempo.