Tár: A Brilliant, Biting Masterpiece
Much of the buzz around Tár, the third film from writer-director Todd Field (and his first in over a decade), has been about two elements: one, that Cate Blanchett gives an all-timer of a performance, and two, that the film is one of the first great works about “cancel culture” (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Me Too movement). On the first statement, you’ll hear no disagreement from me — Blanchett is as dazzling as you’ve heard — but the second feels regrettably reductive. Yes, the plot features a protagonist threatened with allegations that could jeopardize her career, but thematically that’s almost beside the point; as in Field’s prior works, the resonance comes from watching how his characters handle themselves when the houses of cards they’ve precariously built inevitably come crashing down.
Field’s first solo screenwriting credit, and first not based on pre-existing material, Tár follows the eponymous Lydia Tár (Blanchett), an almost comically accomplished composer and conductor (as we learn in a delightfully expository early interview moderated by real-life New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, Tár is an EGOT winner and is about to publish her memoir, Tár on Tár), as she prepares to record her potential magnum opus: a live performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic. As she navigates through rehearsals, interviews, and the politics of the classical music world, her relationships become more and more complicated — so self-centered is Tár that she either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that her behavior towards her wife Sharon and her assistant Francesca (Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant, respectively, both excellent) has created a potential powder keg, just waiting to explode. This is a film that trades in when, not if.
Field made his mark as a director with two films (2001’s In the Bedroom and 2006’s Little Children) that were not only adapted from prose, but felt strikingly literary in their cinematic execution; cautionary tales of the undercurrents of suburbia, shot with a warmth that belied the inherent darkness at play. Tár, in contrast, seems altogether different at first blush: environments are cold and sterile, and the laser focus on Tár’s perspective — hardly anything happens that isn’t filtered through her senses, though Field impressively provides the audience with enough clues to contextualize events even when Tár doesn’t — is a far cry from the broader tapestry of primary players moving through Field’s other pieces.
But as we move through the film, the connective tissue becomes more clear. Tár may have escaped suburbia, but the seductive darkness of the American dream has followed her. In her quest for greatness, ego and unchecked desire threaten to subsume artistry. The character, as skillfully developed by Field and Blanchett, is a mess of contradictions; the film, in its wryly humorous way, acknowledges that Tár is a genius, but it also recognizes that she’s — pardon the expression — full of shit. Like with a great many powerful and talented individuals, Tár may be brilliant, but just not quite as brilliant as she might think in her most Icarus-esque moments.
The majesty of the film, however, comes from the fact that deep down, Tár probably knows this about herself. In any given moment she may feel invulnerable, but a part of her knows she’s just as fallible as anyone else. It’s this dynamic — inscrutable, yet somehow relatable and even pitiable — that makes her as compelling as any character in recent cinematic memory, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Blanchett in the role. Her ability to mesmerize as a larger-than-life figure and then within an instant shrink into emotional vulnerability is on full display here, in a performance that elicits laughs, horror, and awe in equal measure. As Tár moves from frame to frame, leaving self-inflicted wounds in her wake, the discomfort starts to become unbearable, and director and actor play directly into that feeling — both feed off scene-to-scene unpredictability even as the necessary outcome gains clarity. As character study, as exercise in tension, as darkly pointed satire, Tár works on just about every level, and — fittingly — turns out to be Field’s masterpiece.