There haven’t been many characters on screen quite like Lydia Tár.
Had Todd Field’s Tár been released fifty years ago, she would have been a lovable scoundrel, her misdeeds played for laughs in service of her genius. If it was made today by any other filmmaker, she would be an unequivocal villain. In either event, she would be a man; I’m thinking perhaps Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole in the former scenario, and George Clooney or somebody playing against type in a bid for award recognition in the latter. As it is, she’s Cate Blanchett, and though she is more or less playing to type (and has already begun sweeping up awards), her performance is startlingly fresh, and it anchors one of the most original and unforgettable films of the year.
As Tár opens, Lydia Tár is sitting in a Q&A at Lincoln Center, as the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (playing himself) recites her accomplishments to the well-heeled crowd: world-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmoniker, personal protege of Leonard Bernstein, EGOT, humanitarian, wit. She soaks in the accolades, then deftly brushes them off with the polished self-deprecation of one who knows they cannot be deprecated. Lydia is a capital-G genius, and she’s not afraid to revel in it, whether holding court over a class of Juilliard students (mocking their rejection of white, male canon composers like Bach while proudly describing herself as a “UHaul lesbian”) or exercising her power over her musicians while mounting an ambitious arrangement of Mahler’s fifth symphony.
Shouldering the weight, of course, are her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), also a violinist in the orchestra, and her long-suffering assistant Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noemie Merlant). It is Francesca’s job to carry Lydia’s baggage overseas, smooth over political ripples among the musicians, and diplomatically ignore and delete the increasingly urgent emails from a “crazy” former student. But as anyone who’s glanced at the news over the past few years can tell you, allegations have a way of making their way into the public consciousness, and soon the seemingly unsinkable Lydia Tár finds her perch at the top of the world in jeopardy.
Tár will inevitably be branded a “#MeToo drama,” and the shoe more or less fits; as is made clear by references to the pandemic and other current events, this is very much a story taking place in the here and now. But most films made thus far under that banner seem to have been made with the endpoint in mind, their characters and situations reverse engineered to get us to their sordid reckoning. Tár, on the other hand, is first and foremost a character study. Lydia Tár is not a real person, of course, but Tár occasionally carries itself like a biopic, her life and place in the (very recognizably real) world set in stone. Tár is a story of power and hubris and the mechanisms that topple those who become too comfortable in their corruption. Lydia Tár would have come crashing down one way or another; that her undoing comes in the form of a sexual harassment scandal is simply a function of the fact that her story takes place in 2022. Tár is not a #MeToo drama; it’s a Lydia Tár drama.
It barely feels like hyperbole to say that Lydia Tár is the character towards whom Cate Blanchett’s career has been building. Not since Howie Ratner has a role felt more perfectly suited to an actor’s gifts; Lydia allows Blanchett to be commanding and ethereal, funny and terrifying, brilliant and deeply broken. The actress appears to relish the character’s every move, and to understand how to deploy each line for maximum effect (to say nothing of the fact that she actually conducts the film’s orchestra). Watching Tár, you can easily understand how this woman could bend the world to her whim and take control of any room into which she walks; you like her, for her wit, for her talent, even as you can see that she would be a nightmare to know personally. When her world starts crumbling, part of you still wants to see her come out on top; like so many real-life figures before and since, you know she’s probably a monster, but she’s just so entertaining.
This also goes a long way to separate Tár from similar films of the #MeToo cycle, which tend to be (understandably) punishing affairs. Tár probably isn’t anybody’s idea of a feel-good movie, but Field and Blanchett carry the proceedings with a crisp wit and a sense of irony as dry as Lydia’s own. An early scene in which Lydia wheedles a young ingenue cellist highlights both her sinister charms and her gradually declining grasp of the zeitgeist (“What album?” Lydia asks when the musician cites Anna Netrebko as her greatest influence; “YouTube videos,” comes the shrugged answer, and the faintest hint of embarrassment flashes across the older woman’s face). The final shot, meanwhile, has to constitute the most grimly hilarious cinematic punchline since the final moments of Nightmare Alley. Through it all, Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister film the proceedings with a methodical, bemused detachment. It’s heavy, but played with a touch just light enough that it never weighs you down.
What makes Tár such a compelling film is its willingness to play in moral gray areas in a time when popular discourse is increasingly binary. Lydia Tár is a great artist; she is also probably a monster (the film leaves just enough ambiguity that one might argue her innocence, but we’ve all been through this enough times to know better; as Liz Phair once sang, presaging #MeToo by a quarter century, “Airport biographies are usually true”). This is not the story of the victims’ abuse, nor is it some kneejerk anti-cancel-culture diatribe; we’ve seen both of those films (the latter more often than one might care to). Tár is something new, an insightful, mordantly funny look at power and the state of culture today. In its bravado, precision, and sheer power, one suspects even Lydia Tár would approve– though she’d probably rip it to shreds anyway.
dir. Todd Field
Opens Friday, 10/14 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and elsewhere