Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a scarily accomplished conductor and composer who lives a life of luxury. She’s the first woman to lead the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, but when she has engagements in New York, her wealthy benefactor Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) sends a private jet.
Tár lives in a large, tastefully greige apartment with her supportive partner Sharon (Nina Hoss), who’s also her lead violinist, and their somewhat introverted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). Sharon handles most of the childcare because Tár’s focus is clearly her career: she has already completed the EGOT clean sweep (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards), and is about to publish a book called Tár on Tár.
Lydia Tár isn’t a real person, but this riveting film about the corrupting effects of power and privilege will make you think she is. That’s partly because writer-director Todd Field has created a terrifyingly believable character and world that she presides over. This is Field’s first film in 16 years and he hasn’t held back: Tár has an epic 157-minute runtime that it thoroughly justifies.
Tár also feels real because of Blanchett’s virtuoso performance that has just won her a Golden Globe. The scenes where she conducts the orchestra aren’t just convincing, but thrilling and transportative. Her maestro (as everyone calls Tár) is brilliant, self-absorbed, manipulative, duplicitous and cruel. In a chilling early scene, she confronts her daughter’s playground bully by looking the little girl in the eye and hissing: “I will get you.”
Tár is preparing for a live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 which is expected to become another monumental achievement, but she is also facing myriad distractions. She wants to get rid of doddery assistant conductor Sebastian Brix (Allan Corduner), but knows it will look too convenient if she replaces him with her assistant-cum-protégé Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant). After all, rumours are already swirling about Tár’s questionable relationships with young women seeking to climb the classical ladder.
One of them, whom we never see on screen, seems to be suffering from mental health issues and is possibly stalking Tár. As chaos creeps into the maestro’s previously serene universe, everyday sounds appear to disturb her greatly. Still this doesn’t stop Tár from developing an inappropriate fixation with Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer), a talented twentysomething cellist who has just joined the orchestra. She even hatches a shameless plan to further the young musician’s progress.
When Sharon tells her arrogant partner that nearly every relationship in her life is “transactional”, she’s absolutely correct. Tár is a smooth groomer who extracts what she wants from everyone in her orbit, but she is also being used by others. Equally, Field’s film isn’t just about a hubristic abuser getting her comeuppance; it also poses timely questions about identity politics and our ability to separate great art from the problematic artists who made it.
After Tár’s life falls apart, Field seems to fumble in finding a way to leave her. He does come up with one – his closing shot will make you gasp – but only after a slightly protracted final act. Then again, perhaps this is intentional: Tár may have been brought down to earth, but like so many monsters, she’s nothing if not resilient. This dazzling character study will haunt you long after the credits roll.
- Director: Todd Field
- Starring: Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant
- Release date: January 13 (UK)