Cate Blanchett is a consistently fascinating actress. Regardless of the role and the movie containing it, she is able to surprise with how precisely she plays her character. She is basically a character actress who happens to star in movies. She always brings something different, something unexpected, to everything she does. That is true once again of her excellent performance in the character study Tár, a drama about a famous conductor whose professional brilliance is intruded upon by the way she conducts her personal life.
Blanchett dominates every second she is on screen (which is the vast majority of the 154-minute running time, minus the end credits). She plays a complicated genius, who struggles when she is not working on music in some way or standing at a podium. There is an arrogance to her that is both earned and misused, as she cruelly and casually disregards, disrespects or outright insults the people she encounters.
The screenplay generally doesn’t verbalize her emotions. Blanchett expresses them with her impatient line readings and a smile that, more often than not, indicates displeasure. Her body language is especially good when portraying sadness or (in brief moments) guilt. She makes a selfish person tremendously compelling.
Lydia Tár, considered to be one of the world’s greatest living conductors, is in preparation for a big concert when her past actions make those around her wonder if it is worth putting up with her.
There are a lot of cancel culture, in addition to #metoo, elements to Tár. Writer/director Todd Field, making his first feature in 16 years, fits in so many parallels and direct references to our current social climate that it is easy to think this is based on a true story. Lydia Tár is a powerful celebrity, at least in classical music circles. Could a single accusation of abuse take her down? Does it matter if she is actually guilty? Or is an accusation enough to ruin her on its own? Field’s screenplay isn’t interested in guilt vs innocence. This is not an investigation into Lydia Tár’s past. It is a look at what our society now does to people like her.
Field doesn’t state whether he thinks this is a good or bad thing, yet his movie does not sympathize with its protagonist. She isn’t supplied with excuses or speeches justifying her behavior. She is who she is. Everything she has done is for the best. If someone takes offense, well, they must have their own issues. She deflects and denies. The question is how much of this is lying and how much is self-deception. Lydia herself may not even know.
This material is deftly set up in an early scene where she is teaching a class at Julliard. Lydia asks a student what he thinks of the music of Bach. When the student replies that he has no interest in the work of a straight, white, misogynist, representative of the patriarchy, who has been dead for centuries, she fires back with a condescending response, the point of which is that young people today immediately throw away anything that doesn’t perfectly embody their morals, thus causing them to miss out on great art.
This is an argument for separating the art from the artist, a conversation that happens seemingly every time someone famous is accused of doing something terrible. This is different than ignoring awful behavior so the artist can continue to make their art, though the line can definitely be blurry. This concept isn’t really expanded upon using dialogue, but it is there, lurking in Lydia’s psyche, especially when things start to go wrong.
It is absolutely there in her deep love and appreciation for music. She is so easily absorbed in developing, experimenting, practicing and hearing the results of her hard work. It is clear that she is amazing at what she does. If her entire life could be spent in front of a piano or an orchestra, she would need nothing else. Unfortunately for her, life also involves other people. Does she take advantage of them because it is in her nature? Or is she merely using the power she earned with her skill because she is sad and lonely and this is what powerful people do? Does it even matter? Certainly not to those she hurts.
Todd Field has made a movie that is powerful in the way it raises questions for the audience to answer. He seems to take issue with people like Lydia Tár and the social media culture that brings them down. There is a nuance to his approach that is very intriguing. And, of course, there is Cate Blanchett, most likely on her way to another Oscar nomination, anchoring things with a brilliantly committed performance. This is one of the most thought-provoking, as well as best, movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár
Noémie Merlant as Francesca Lentini
Nina Hoss as Sharon Goodnow
Sophie Kauer as Olga Metkina
Written and Directed by Todd Field