At first glance, one might expect writer / director Todd Field’s Tár to be a fictionalized look behind the scenes of the functioning of an orchestra as led by a towering figure in the classical music world, and to a degree it is that. Scenes of the well-realized but wholly invented composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) working out her arrangement for her upcoming performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic offer the sort of look at what exactly a conductor does that few outside of that world ever see. And honestly, the movie would be riveting enough if that’s all it was, but there is much more at work here.
Lydia has worked hard to maneuver a traditionally male-dominated system and achieve a level of renown that grants her enormous power over others in her field, particularly as the chief conductor of one of the world’s most esteemed orchestras. As such, she has a not-undeserved air of superiority about herself and exudes the confidence of someone who is used to getting their way by any means necessary. Her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), an aspiring conductor herself, tries to tell Lydia that a former protégé named Krista has been sending alarming emails but is told to brush it off, with whatever transpired between the two women only hinted at. In the meantime, Lydia’s wife and the orchestra’s concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss) begins to feel jealous as she sees Lydia begin to lavish attention on new cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer).
One day Francesca informs Lydia that Krista has committed suicide, possibly as a result of actions that Lydia had taken against her to which she replies that Francesca should quickly delete all emails between herself and Krista. As this is happening, Lydia finds herself haunted by nightmares, distant screams, strange scribblings, and an incredibly heightened sensitivity to sounds, with the most mundane of noises driving her to distraction. When news of her secret past with Krista threatens to come out, Tár finds herself in danger of spiraling out of control.
There are a lot of heavy themes on display here, both in the background and openly on display. The ways in which power can corrupt us, potentially to the point that we no longer recognize ourselves is chief among them, but there are also some thought-provoking examinations of so-called cancel culture and the notion of separating the art from the artist that astutely avoid coming down on either side of the debate, while also critiquing the way we’ve been handling said debate in real life. Much of the movie’s success hinges on the lead actress and Blanchett is unsurprisingly magnificent here, delivering one of her strongest perfomances to date, one that is ably buoyed by her superb supporting cast. Field’s script is filled to the brim with scintillating dialog and slow-burn tension and adeptly keeps Lydia as a character floating in the gray area between villain and protagonist, while his direction uses sharp angles and lingering long-takes to heighten the emotion. Orchestrated to perfection as both an intellectual exercise and entertainment, Tár hits all the right notes. ★★★★★
RATED R FOR SOME LANGUAGE AND BRIEF NUDITY.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor