In the world of classical music, you’re either a rockstar or a nobody. Tár, written and directed by Todd Field with Cate Blanchett in the title role, follows world-renowned conductor Lydia Tár and her outlandish attempts to maintain her celebrity at the risk of both her family, her reputation, and her livelihood.
Lydia Tár, a world-famous conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic, is preparing to perform her career magnum opus, Mahler’s 5th Symphony. In a live interview with Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker Festival, Tár talks about her inspirations and rise to lead conductor position; she’s composed, refined, and speaks with an obnoxious confidence that assures audiences she won’t be a likeable protagonist.
Off-stage, Tár relies on her personal assistant Francesca, a young hopeful with dreams of following in her boss’ footsteps, and her wife Sharon, the philharmonic’s concertmaster who suffers from an undisclosed illness. Together, Lydia and Sharon have an adopted daughter, young Petra, who seems to be the only person in her life that she actually cares about.
Tár is not a complex character by any stretch. A classic narcissist, Tár is so deeply obsessed with maintaining her status in the classical music world that she has no issue lying and taking advantage of all those around her. Lydia Tár’s real name is Linda Tarr, and she’s from a lower-class American family, a fact that her wife and daughter very likely don’t know. Lydia actively puts Sharon’s health at risk by having Francesca steal her pills so that she can self-medicate while on the road, and at a lunch with Eliot Kaplan, a fellow conductor and the manager of Tár’s fellowship program for aspiring female conductors. She is openly condescending when speaking about her assistant conductor and a former member of her fellowship program, Krista Taylor.
Tár explores some topical themes, specifically abuse of power and manipulation in relationships. It’s heavily implied that Krista and Lydia had a sexual relationship when she was part of the fellowship program, a relationship that was largely a result of grooming. Field explores this further with Olga, a Russian cellist who auditions for the orchestra’s empty cello seat. Lydia is visibly attracted to Olga, and even manipulates her audition scorecard and the orchestra’s setlist to allow Olga to play as a soloist. The way Tár openly flirts with Olga, especially in front of Sharon, shows a sincere belief that she’s untouchable. Her hubris is astronomical, and Blanchett plays it as brilliantly as you’d expect. She’s lithe and imposing on camera, to the untrained ear her use of German is impressive, and she has a cockiness that feels extremely on brand for someone in Lydia’s position.
It is interesting to see a film explore such themes with a female character as a central perpetrator, especially in light of recent Me Too/Times Up movements, and Blanchett’s portrayal is nuanced enough that at times it can take a few moments to fully register how she’s puppeteering those around her. Lydia’s downfall, in the end, is thinking that everything she’s done has gone unnoticed.
Outside of Blanchett’s performance, there’s not a lot to praise about Tár. Films about unlikeable people can be enjoyable, From Dusk Till Dawn is a prime example, but Tár just doesn’t have the personality to pull that feat off. The film feels incredibly dense, which isn’t helped by Field’s decision to run approximately 15-20 minutes of credits at the very start of the film; with all due respect to the team involved in making this film, staring at a black screen that reels off hundreds of names hardly sets the mood for an enjoyable movie watching experience.
The film also falls victim to some strange edits, where scenes that could’ve been longer were cut for time and scenes that should’ve been shorter were elongated to annoying lengths. While some of these scenes served a due purpose, like showing Lydia’s process when composing, most just left the film feeling slow and tedious.
All in all, Tár is exactly what you’d expect from an Oscar bait movie. Those who like to sound smart will say it’s brilliant, and in some ways it is. But I fear the masses will not leave the cinema at the end of its nearly 3-hour run time feeling all that entertained.