“Tár,” written and directed by Todd Field, tells the story of a world-famous symphony orchestra conductor played by Cate Blanchett, and let me say right up front: It’s the work of a master filmmaker. That’s not a total surprise. Field has made only two previous films, and the first of them, the domestic revenge drama “In the Bedroom” (2001), was languorous and lacerating — a small, compact indie-world explosion. His second feature, “Little Children” (2006), was, in my opinion, a misfire, though his talent was all over it.
But “Tár,” the first film he has made in 16 years, takes Todd Field to a new level. The movie is breathtaking — in its drama, its high-crafted innovation, its vision. It’s a ruthless but intimate tale of art, lust, obsession, and power. It’s set in the contemporary classical-music world, and if that sounds a bit high-toned (it is, in a good way), the movie leads us through that world in a manner that’s so rigorously precise and authentic and detailed that it generates the immersion of a thriller. The characters in “Tár” feel as real as life. (They’re acted to richly drawn perfection down to the smallest role.) You believe, at every moment, in the reality you’re seeing, and it’s extraordinary how that raises the stakes.
Blanchett, in a performance that’s destined to make her a major presence in this year’s awards season, plays Lydia Tár, one of the most celebrated conductors of her time. The film opens with an enigmatic shot of a text-message exchange, which will gradually pierce us as its meaning comes to light. It then goes into an extended sequence where Lydia is interviewed onstage by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker (playing himself), which allows us to discover who she is and to revel in the caginess of her cultivated stardom. Lydia, we learn, has been the conductor of the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic (among other prestige posts), and for seven years she has led the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s an EGOT winner, and her mentor was Leonard Bernstein, who pioneered the role of the American conductor as a larger-than-life figure. Lydia, like Lenny, possesses powers of articulation that rival her musical skills.
She speaks, with astonishing eloquence and wit, of conducting as the marshalling of time itself, and of how the relationship between Gustav Mahler and his wife, Anna, influenced the composing of his grandly ominous and romantic Symphony No. 5, which she is about to record in Berlin. And Lydia addresses the question of what it means to be a conductor who’s a woman — which, perhaps to our surprise, she treats as a total non-issue (as does the film), explaining that that road was paved long ago, and that she now occupies the privileged position of not having to be defined, by her gender, as some sort of novelty act.
Blanchett’s performance first strikes us as a tad theatrical; she almost seems to be reciting the lines. But what we realize is that Lydia herself is giving a performance, pitching her persona to the New York swells, stitching together thoughts and anecdotes she has told dozens of times. Offstage, she’s as fiery and spontaneous as she was fake-spontaneous in the interview, as we see her in assorted encounters, like a gossipy lunch with Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), the nerdish investment banker and part-time conductor with whom she founded the Accordian fellowship, an organization devoted to the cultivating and placing of aspiring young women conductors, or the quippy back-and-forth she enjoys with Francesca (Noémie Merlant), her comely and recessive assistant, who multitasks as devotedly as if Lydia were a high-maintenance studio executive.
One of the fascinations of “Tár” is her portrait of Lydia as a highbrow paragon who has created herself as a kind of brand. She’s a passionate scholar who lives and breathes the scores she’s conducting. She’s an ardent teacher, who in one exhilarating sequence leads a master class at Juilliard with a whiplash provocation designed to slice through the pieties — about atonal music and identity politics — that, in her opinion, have blunted the students’ sense of possibility. She’s a global celebrity who understands that conducting is a dictatorship, something she enforces within the democratic-socialist protocols that supposedly rule the Berlin orchestra. She’s a technologist of recordings, micromanaging the nuances of how her albums are made (right down to the pose on the cover photos), and an author as well, about to publicize a coffee-table book called “Tár on Tár.” And she is, in effect, a CEO, enmeshed in the office politics of managing the symphony personnel, organizing benefit concerts, constructing a fearsome global reach that’s the cornerstone of her mystique.
Blanchett, with long straight hair that gives off an Annie Liebovitz power vibe, plays her with magnetic shifts of mood, so that we register her lordly smile of dominance, her rhapsodic passion and exactitude on the podium (which is heightened by Lydia’s fluent command of German, the language of her favorite composers), and, through it all, her supreme control-freak manner — the way she guards her idealism with a killer instinct. When she tells an interviewer that conducting The Rite of Spring made her realize any one of us is capable of murder, she’s most definitely speaking for herself. But in that Juilliard class, when she sits down to play the famous Prelude in C Major from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, she explains the music in a way that’s as moving as the music itself. She’s trying to convince one of the students, who rejects Bach because of his old-white-male “misogyny,” that such rejections are childish. The scene is designed to make us cheer for her defense of art against the slings and arrows of cultural correctness. As it turns out, though, her triumphant rhetoric comes encoded with its own blowback.
In this scene and so many others, Field’s script is dazzling in its conversational flow, its insider dexterity, its perception of how power in the world actually works. He creates such an elaborately enticing portrait of Lydia Tár as a public figure that when she travels back to Berlin and walks into her impossibly luxe designer home, it comes as a slight shock to realize that she also has a personal life. She is married, to the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic (played by the radiantly sane-tempered Nina Hoss), and they have a young daughter, Petra, who Lydia, amusingly, rescues from a mean-girl situation at school by speaking to the young bully in question with such a perfect terrorist threat (“I am Petra’s father…I am going to get you”) that you realize she can master the politics of any situation. Except for one.
In “Tár,” Todd Field enmeshes us in a tautly unfolding narrative of quiet duplicity, corporate intrigue, and — ultimately — erotic obsession. Yet he does it so organically that for a while you don’t even realize you’re watching a “story.” But that’s what a great story is, right? It doesn’t hit you over the head with telegraphed arcs. It sneaks up on you, the way that life does. Field, working with the cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, has shot “Tár” so that it looks like a documentary directed by Stanley Kubrick (who Field worked with on “Eyes Wide Shut,” back when he was an actor). The compositions are naturalistic in an imposing, ice-cool way, and what they express is the casual calculation with which Lydia monitors every facet of her existence. Her personal life, artistic career, and highly charged, verbally dominating personality are all in such powerful sync that we can’t imagine how anything could upset this apple cart.
Yet there’s one aspect of Lydia’s life that she understandably keeps on the down-low: the women she has flings with on the side. She is, in her way, a not untypical celebrity, treating sexual indulgence as something she has the license to do. In this case, part of the flavor of it emerges from the classical-music world, which has had more than its share of philanderers and predators. The reason for that, Field suggests, is that there’s something about the exalted nature of this music that leads the people who live everyday within its heady majesty to feel as if pleasure, in every realm, is their divine right.
“Tár” tells much of its story through a kind of elliptical suggestion, so that we have to read between the lines a bit to see that Lydia lives out her dreams of hedonistic entitlement by having serial casual affairs with the young women in her orbit, many of them aspiring conductors, like Francesca, that dourly devoted assistant. In her way, she’s grooming them. We notice the gaze and sensual handshake Lydia gives to the adoring young journalist who’s interviewing her, and the way that she fixes on Olga (Sophie Kauer), the orchestra’s virtuosic new Russian cellist. When she sees, in an old video, that the cellist, as a teenager, had mastered Elgar’s Cello Concerto, she arranges for that to be the second piece on the Mahler program — a deadpan funny act of corporate chicanery, since Lydia has to orchestrate the whole audition process as if she hadn’t planned out the result from the start.
There is also a foreshadowing glimpse, in the audience at the New Yorker interview, of a woman we see only from behind — a redhead named Krista, 25 years old and one of the Accordian fellows, who Lydia enjoyed a brief intense relationship with, until it became clear that Krista was fixed on her in a compulsive and unstable way. Lydia not only cut her loose; she campaigned, in private, against her landing a conducting position with an orchestra. But Krista can’t let go — of Lydia or of her own demons. And this is the wrong era for that to happen in.
“Tár” has been constructed ingeniously, so that the various situations Lydia is dealing with in the orchestra — like her scheme to get rid of Sebastian (Allan Corduner), the old mule of an assistant conductor — interlock in unexpected ways. Lydia cuts Sebastian loose with icy efficiency, but that means Francesca thinks it’s her time to step up and occupy the assistant-conductor slot. Lydia, however, decrees that it’s not the time. And that’s a big mistake. She’s counting on the loyalty of Francesca to get rid of the desperate, telltale email messages Krista has been sending to the two of them. Why the two of them? Because this fling was a lot more sensually complicated than other office flings.
The movie starts off as the chronicle of a magnetic, brilliant, difficult artist navigating a sea of career drama. Then, just like that, it evolves into another kind of movie — a study in what can happen when social media, the death of privacy, and a merciless new public morality conspires to hold someone, in all their flaws (including some rather monstrous ones ), up to the light. Lydia rides high, only to confront the rapid spectacle of her downfall. Which is riveting, in a Greek-tragedy-in-the-age-of-YouTube-and-the-New-York-Post sort of way. There’s a moment near the end that rivals the Jackson-Maine-peeing-at-the-Grammys scene in the 2018 “A Star Is Born” for sheer jaw-dropping wowness.
Yet “Tár” also raises a fundamental question, one that will be discussed and debated with singular intensity as the movie gets released in October and then heads into awards season. That question is: Where does the film stand on the issue of what happens to Lydia? I would say that it shows her, very much, to be a predatory soul (and she herself comes face-to-face with that reality in a scene where she tries to get a massage in Thailand). Yet she is also a great artist. You could say, and I would, that the film strikes a note of ambivalence, but in a haunting sense the final judgment offered by “Tár” is not a judgment so much as a statement you can make your own judgment about. The statement is: We’re in a new world. One where people wear masks. And where the power of the sublime no longer holds sway.