starring Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Mark Strong
written and directed by Todd Field
by Walter Chaw Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a monster. She's also a genius of surpassing brilliance, which begs the question--as it so often does, although the artist is usually male--of what the connection might be between genius and monstrosity. Artists and athletes get a certain pass for their behaviour. The myth of the difficult genius is a popular one fostered, I suspect, by the "geniuses" themselves to excuse their neurodivergence...or the unchecked privilege and sense of entitlement their preternatural abilities have won them. When Todd Field, who has not made a bad film, though this is only his third in 21 years, makes the genius in question a woman, there is now the possibility the monster is a victim as well. A victim of systemic misogyny who has internalized that misogyny; a victim of a patriarchal collection of values and standards for success that diminish women, one who has figured out how to manipulate and exploit those values for her own advancement. I mean, what choice does she really have? The pathway to fame and success in this culture entails climbing a ladder constructed from the bodies of those who didn't survive the journey. It's dog-eat-dog out there, people tell you--but no one tells you this cannibalism metaphor is more a literal warning than an artful turn of phrase.
The preeminent interpreter of Gustav Mahler, Tár is a conductor on the verge of two milestones as the film begins: the publication of her hotly-anticipated (amongst the literati) memoir Tár on Tár, and her live recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, which he composed in 1901-02--around the time he met and fell in love with his wife Alma, the stepdaughter of painter Carl Moll and a composer herself. That detail seems important when, during an on-stage interview with the NEW YORKER's Adam Gopnik (playing himself), she details the circumstances of the symphony's composition, how Mahler and Alma subsequently lost one of their two daughters to scarlet fever, and finally how Alma carried on an affair with architect Walter Gropius that persisted past the end of Mahler's life. Gopnik wants to know if Tár's performance of the Fifth will lean into the tragedy of Mahler or into the specific moment of joy that saw the genesis of the piece. Tár says she's choosing joy, but she says it in a way that is not in the slightest bit joyful. She says it like she says everything else: intensely, with a dash of recrimination. Tár is a Thomas Harris character: diligently researched and transcendently, impossibly capable and informed. She burns a swath through the world. Asked to speak to a conducting class at Julliard, she incinerates a young student who says that because they're a non-binary BIPOC, they can't "take seriously" a white cis composer like Bach. Tár is flabbergasted at the solipsistic ignorance/arrogance of such a statement. She says, "When you're standing behind the podium, what do you want to be judged for?" and she makes a very, very good point.
Bach is arguably the greatest composer of all time. He habitually fooled around and doubtless hurt a great many people in the process. The difference between Bach and a living artist who is an abuser is that supporting a living artist who is an abuser gives the abuser more of the power and status they use to facilitate their abuse. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, these guys don't have lists of victims a mile long if they're not popular successes in an industry that prioritizes profit and awards prestige over human lives. Power perpetuates abuse, and we have a role in that. Accountability for rape--and, if we're talking politics, insurrection and treason--is not "cancel culture," but indeed, those most likely to perpetuate systems of predatory exploitation are fond of making an injustice out of consequences. Tár, it appears, has a history of grooming young women she invites into her orchestras: treating them to dinner at restaurants they couldn't begin to dream of affording, telling them they're special, and then taking them to bed. Tár is married to the first violin of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sharon (Nina Hoss). They have a daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), and share a luxe, modern home in Berlin to which Tár regularly commutes with the help of her executive assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant). Francesca hopes to win a post in Tár's organization, should she prove resilient enough to suffer her boss's rages and peculiarities. Francesca is like everyone aspiring for extremely limited dream jobs: vulnerable to absolutely terrible humiliations while otherwise decent people turn a blind eye so as not to jeopardize their own status. In one gorgeously complicated scene among many, Tár confronts a little girl who's been abusing Petra at school and threatens her, saying she'll "get" her because she's a grownup, and because she's a grownup, no one will believe that their conversation even took place.
We get the impression this is how Tár approaches everything in life. She goes and gets it. She goes through people. She uses them up and throws them away, and her power is in her intelligence, sure, but also in how much she doesn't care about the human collateral left in her wake. She's gotten away with it for this long because she's capable of things no one else is, and because she's brazen. And then the roof caves in. There's a lot more to Tár than this, mind. There's the meticulousness of the dialogue, the magisterial command of Blanchett's performance, the lingering question of how many ruined lives are worth the equivalent of the beauty Tár brings into the world with her art. If we grant that Tár is the only artist capable of interpreting Mahler as definitively as she is able to interpret him--and that her interpretation is essential to a full appreciation of his work--then silencing her presents the same dilemma John Frankenheimer's The Train poses in its tale of a group of French railroaders trying to rescue stolen art from a crumbling Nazi regime. How many human lives would you trade for one irreplaceable cultural artifact? And do we lose a priceless artifact if we keep Tár from recording Mahler's Fifth? Tár plays with our sympathies precisely the way a maestro pushes her instruments to the point of snapping in pursuit of some sublimity.
A young woman, Krista, a graduate of the mentorship program Tár has established for young female conductors, kills herself off-screen at one point. In fact, we barely see her at all except as a series of increasingly desperate texts and emails begging Tár to speak with her. And from the other side, we see Tár continually undermine Krista's attempts to land the job she was trained to do--by no less than Tár herself. Krista could've been a genius, too, with a lifetime of great work in her we'll never experience because of Tár's cruelty and boundless ambition. We don't know that. But we do know that Tár is a genius, and this conflict between being a moral person who values the arts and a moral person who values the individual meets on an irreducible ideological battlefield. The final image of the film is of the artist at work with no concern about the nature of the work. The work is the thing for Tár, it's all that's important, though I'm not sure Field believes the same thing. Certainly, he doesn't to the same degree. Tár is an active conversation: compelling, fascinating, exhausting, and exhilarating, like a good jam session--like that first weekend in a new romance doomed to flameout but invigorating for a while. Not just great, Tár is important.