‘Tár’ Conducts Cate Blanchett in a Symphony on the Complexities of Power

The arrival of the #MeToo movement knocked down many pedestals. Key among these is that of the genius whose appetites are excused because their talent gives them a free pass to be “different.” Behind a glamorous or championed image, it is easy to forget there stands but another mere human. Director Todd Field gives us ample time to get to know the magnanimous character driving his new film, “Tár,” before allowing the layers of brilliance to reveal something tragic. For Field choosing such a grand subject is a welcome return after nearly 16 years since his last movie. He is a storyteller fascinated by moments as opposed to structured plotting, dabbling in the way people can quickly be honest and then lie. We all have our habits, it’s just that for the famous, privilege gives them the chance to fully indulge.

The title character is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), lesbian, musical prodigy, pupil to the late Leonard Bernstein and now conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. We first see her being interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, detailing her long, impressive resume and sharing her ideas about music. She is preparing to record a cycle of Gustav Mahler symphonies while living in an opulent Berlin flat with partner and concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss), and Sharon’s elementary school-age daughter. Tár is a walking personification of all we expect from the public image of a renowned conductor. She knows the greats by heart, can dissect recordings exquisitely and has little tolerance for the woke sensibilities of Juilliard students. Her loyal assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), keeps a loyal track of every bit of Tár’s schedule. But darker shades begin to emerge in this picture when a former pupil turned conductor of Tár’s continues messaging in an obsessive frenzy. There is also a new cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), who catches the conductor’s eye.

Despite only directing three features that include this one, Todd Field’s work is a keen shredding of glossy surfaces. His haunting 2001 “In the Bedroom” is about how a shocking tragedy can lead a comfortable, small town doctor to make extreme decisions. 2006’s “Little Children” was a darkly funnier look at all the oddities and twisted psyches walking around American suburbia. “Tár” now arrives for an iconoclastic time where being respected also means undergoing greater scrutiny. Tár feels so secure in her position she doesn’t flinch when challenging a student who states because they are BIPOC and queer, they have no time for cis white composers like Bach. The conductor then breaks into a speech that is relevant and welcomingly challenging, pointing out that if we can judge Bach’s merit as a composer for having been a white man in a patriarchal society, then any artist’s work can be scrutinized based solely on their social upbringing or identity.

Before the real plot developments occur, what makes “Tár” absorbing is Field’s meticulous attention to the details of this world. Anyone who has been around the classical music scene, even as a non-player will appreciate the wealth of detail Field throws into the very personalities of the characters. We get a sense of the way refinement is a natural way of being along with a disciplined perfectionism. Rivalries and gossip stir within orchestras and Tár happily dismisses during an interview the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as all flash. When looking at a package by a team preparing to take her official photos, we see they worked with Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor who has managed to become an overall popular music personality beyond the classical scene. Tár inhabits an enclosed world with its own hierarchies and food chains. 

Field then uses Tár to look at how it doesn’t matter the environment, or gender and sexual orientation, power becomes so intoxicating that anyone can be tempted to use it for bending the rules. He also avoids crude sensationalism. We never see the conductor sexually assault or intimidate anyone. Field’s screenplay is a keen profile on how abuses of power tend to start in increments. Dialogue hints that Sharon’s relationship with Tár began as a workplace fling. Now Tár has set her sights on the Russian cellist Olga, who is in her 20s and has that naivety and ambition of youth. Tár is never upfront in her pursuit, but seems to be preparing the terrain with gestures. When she learns Olga was inspired to play the cello after watching Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary performance of Elgar’s cello concerto on YouTube, she practically orders the orchestra to add it to their upcoming performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony. Even we are startled at how openly she manipulates the terrain to make Olga the soloist for the piece, forcing aside the more experienced cellist who is already a permanent member of the orchestra.

For Cate Blanchett, this is one of her strongest performances since breaking out in 1998’s “Elizabeth,” and certainly will get her an Oscar nomination. She’s all ego but not completely heartless. Her Tár is so used to getting what she wants she can be oblivious to how certain actions will be perceived. Blanchett is only unconvincing during some of the conducting scenes, where she tries a bit too hard to look maddened by genius, like a cheesy imitation of Herbert von Karajan. The rest is excellent. Tár so self-assured that even when a former pupil commits suicide, she tries to simply shut it out by deleting potentially compromising e-mails. Sharon has to tell her, with a needed punch, that it’s only with her young daughter that Tár has a non-transactional relationship. After reaching a certain pedestal, an artist like Tár grows used to expecting others to seek something from her. Why not ask for favors in return? But such a personality also creates a growing nest of enemies, such as the loyal assistant who realizes her power when slighted. Jealous conductors feign being nice during lunch, waiting later to plunge the knife. Once certain accusations go public, Tár falls into a claustrophobic downward spiral quietly catastrophic to behold. 

With Todd Field you never know quite where the narrative is going even when you feel like the territory is getting familiar. Tár’s fall from grace could lead to some overwrought melodrama with a lesser filmmaker. Instead, Field evokes that sensation of things getting from your control, never quite to be the same again. We don’t need much dialogue to sense the humiliation when governing committees and boards of directors meet with the conductor to air her dirty laundry. Field is not necessarily sympathizing with Tár or making excuses, only instead portraying the tragedy of human folly. Here is someone who has it all and somehow can’t help with those small impulses where one decision can later blossom into a crisis. What’s it all for? In a darkly funny scene, Tár asks Olga during a trip to meet her for dinner and the younger musician practically ignores her while texting, only later to emerge in a seductive dress to go out on her own. This is how the mighty fall, with sad sighs rather than roars.

Tár” releases Oct. 7 in select theaters and expands Oct. 28 in theaters nationwide.