There’s no glory for a robot.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is an icon. A genius. Listen to a lecture introduction given by The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik and you’d be hard-pressed to refute someone hailing her as the second-coming of Jesus Christ. She’s a God amongst men that everyone in the classical music scene wants to either work with or become and she gives back to them with fellowship programs, mentorships, and her position as lead conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. With an EGOT on her shelf, a wife (Nina Hoss‘ concertmaster Sharon) and daughter at home, a book (Tár on Tár) publishing, and her Mahler cycle finally completing after a COVID postponement, she’s got nowhere to go but … down. Because that success—that power—can corrupt even the best of us.
As writer/director Todd Field begins his latest film Tár, you’d be forgiven for assuming Lydia was humanity’s best. He’s purposefully baiting us to give this woman the benefit of the doubt as an intellectual and an artist beyond reproach. Even when he starts to chip away at that façade in a classroom setting with her trying to understand a fellow’s (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist‘s Max) choice of compositions for his conducting thesis, we allow her the room to be dismissive because she’s doing so in a challenging way. We project meaning onto her combativeness. We realize that these young adults need to be able to both handle criticism and explain their choices. Does she go too far? Maybe. But she’s earned that latitude. Or so we’re made to believe.
Because what if that latitude has made her unworthy of it? What if her knee-jerk defense of problematic men to willingly separate the “art from the artist” is less about teaching the beauty of the music removed from its origins and more about an inherent need to defend herself once the truth of her past is inevitably exposed? There’s a conversation between Tár and her benefactor (and aspiring conductor) Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) that sets the stage for what’s coming so succinctly due to our collective ignorance. He wonders why she never cut her predecessor’s (Julian Glover‘s Andris Davis) assistant conductor (Allan Corduner‘s Sebastian) loose upon taking over. He admits the sole fellow (Sylvia Flote‘s Krista) they couldn’t place from their program was unstable. Nothing is therefore amiss.
Except that so much is, yet he, being so intertwined with her success, is positioned in a way that demands he not see it. We do, though. We see the catty texts superimposed above private cellphone live streams of Tár in less than flattering light. We see the looks of jealousy on her assistant Francesca’s (Noémie Merlant) face when talking (and flirting) with other women only to learn Lydia has put her in her employee under the auspices of it leading to a promotion wherein she can conduct too. And what about that glimpse of Olga Metkina’s (Sophie Kauer) shoes in the bathroom before a blind audition? It’s just enough to know who’s behind that curtain so she can ensure a victory based on lust rather than talent.
This is how Tár has always operated. Whether she would ever have the clarity to admit as much, however, remains to be seen and subsequently presents the question of whether it’s better or worse that she’s oblivious to the damage she’s wrought. And with so much going on right now, you’d assume she’d be more cautious as far as keeping things impeccably professional. With all eyes upon her, now is the moment to be on her best behavior. Except, of course, that being on the top of pyramid means she doesn’t have to be. Tár feels invincible. She feels entitled. Sharon always forgives her while her subordinates always look the other way. Dare to stop giving them reasons to do so, though, and their eyes will open wide.
It’s a methodical and lengthy journey forward with few (if any) sequences that feel inconsequential to the whole despite an almost three-hour runtime. So much of what we see is mirrored, contrasted, and/or flipped at a future point. Field has constructed Tár this way so that he can play with our expectations and call out our preconceptions. He’s forcing judgment upon the classical music scene with inside baseball facts such as plagiarism amongst the greats. He’s subverting #metoo era notions of abusers solely being domineering white men. And he’s revealing how quickly we are as a society to cut bait and walk away. Because we exist in a transactional world. We look out for ourselves. Tár ruthlessly played the game for power. Now it’s her turn to lose.
Hoss and Merlant are very good in supporting roles as the two women able to see through Lydia’s artifice. Their eyes and expressions speak volumes—shock, betrayal, suspicion. They understand who Tár is and what she does because they’re victims themselves. They’ll live with a lot as a result, but pragmatism only takes you so far once the transgressions go beyond their threshold for understanding. Kauer therefore arrives as a necessary contrast since she’s operating on a totally different level. Whereas Tár believes her Olga can be groomed into a new lover, the cellist is actually manipulating the conductor with a brilliant mix of gratitude and apathy. Where Lydia doubles down with indignation whenever Sharon or Francesca refuse to play by her rules, Olga’s insubordination conjures pure desperation.
They ultimately become her undoing now that the world has begun its attempt to shift the imbalance of power. Sharon and Francesca are waking to the fact that they don’t need Lydia to survive. They want her. They’ll do whatever they can to maintain a status quo, but forgiveness and patience have worn thin. And once Tár proves herself more of a liability than a help, walking away becomes easier than standing pat. Bach’s accomplishments are so widespread because the music is all we had for so long. Anything we learn about the man himself is thus secondary to the work because the work had already cemented itself as his legacy. Today’s artists don’t have that luxury. One wrong step and the work becomes nothing but a footnote.
I love how quickly Field delivers this descent too. He doesn’t tell us how much time passes between scenes because context supplies everything we need to understand the progression (he conducts it all exactly as Tár describes to Gopnik). Some changes are subtle, some overt. Some heartbreaking, some hilarious (the neighbors asking Lydia for her “rehearsal schedule” so they can show their apartment without her “noise” is the perfect insult to injury). And it all culminates with a stunningly simple yet profound conclusion that exposes just how much Lydia plagiarized herself alongside a wild reveal explaining how her occupation’s austerity is merely an affected illusion. To have Blanchett as Field’s vessel only renders the transformation more unforgettable. He wrote the part for her alone and she doesn’t disappoint.
[1 & 2] Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features
 (L to R) Sophie Kauer as Olga Metkina and Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field’s TÁR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features