Written and directed by Todd Field
I like Tár very much—probably, in fact, a little more than I respect it, which I feel turns me around from the consensus on it. I do not like several things about it, however, and it starts off with the thing I like about it the least. Having read, you know, more than a handful of reviews about this film, you'd think a bigger deal would be made about its first gambit, which is that it plays its full credits at the beginning rather than at the end, such as has been customary since roughly the 1960s, and today would have to be considered obligatory given the stultifying vastness of the armies of people they need to credit. It seems like it should be a bigger point of discussion: it's extremely intentional, for one; it's astonishingly aggressive, for two. It's flabbergasting that I could scarcely read one single professional review of Babylon that wasn't eager to describe—within the first two paragraphs and invariably with much performative disgust—how that film opens with a shot of an elephant defecating on the camera, and yet hardly anyone so much as alluded to the fact that this film begins with its ending credits, which is by any objective measure worse. I assume that because the movie's good, nobody wanted to point out that this is in contention for the most asinine gesture ever made in the history of film, down to how these are really shittily designed credits.
I did have it mentioned to me offhand, so I'd sort of assumed it was a crawl playing over a scene, which could be cool; it's more like the opposite, blocks of immobile white text that flash on a black screen, which is howlingly uncinematic. I'm really at a loss to name a move more disdainful of an audience—in the context of a film that's 158 minutes long, it seems downright brutish in its arrogance. (It's practically an open invitation to just start playing with your phone in the theater, isn't it?) It, of course, has a purpose. It even has two: first, it's simply to let you know that the end of Tár is already inherent in its beginning (and while, astonishingly, I hadn't heard anyone mention this, either, Tár turns out to have one of the best, most satisfying, and most humorous endings of 2022, and perhaps nobody had any interest in explaining how a movie that moves with such deliberation and through such heaviness could turn out to be 158 minutes of set-up to one glorious hell of a womp-womp joke). Secondly, I suspect, it's to force you to look at a long list of names representing all the human beings it evidently takes to put together a work of art these days—possibly the reason why a movie about talking in rooms still costs as much as hundreds of houses—all of whom matter, in some cosmic sense. And I can't think of a single worse way to make this well-intentioned and very-on-theme gesture, since all it actually made me do was get very resentful about how much I doubt Ashley Kravitz, to pick a poor innocent at random, could give a fuck who I am. In fairness, these credits have an audio component that only takes on meaning in the end (and the end, Christ, needs even more credits, so that the credits we already saw won't spoil it!). And I confess I do not like the song that's sung. They should've played a blooper reel.
Now that I have severely overcorrected for this one deficiency in the conversation around this film, let it be known, for accuracy's sake, that Tár technically begins with an out-of-context POV shot from the perspective of someone filming our—let's say protagonist—Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), which lets us know from some point in "the future" that she'll have done something bad, or, rather, she'll have been discovered to have already done something bad by the time we meet her. Now, I barely need to add anything else to summarize the plot, except biographical data: Lydia (I don't think the movie invites you, even a little, to call her by her first name, but for convenience we shall) is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and she's achieved the pinnacle of fame for her profession, which means about one in ten thousand people have ever heard of her, but within the bubble of classical music she's huge, presently embarking on what we're told (by Lydia) is an ambitious reinterpretation of Gustav Mahler's Fifth to be recorded by her orchestra in a few days' time, as well as a major composition of her own, and an autobiography, Tár on Tár. We learn most of this in a big heap in an exposition dump during an interview with The New Yorker, which, unlike the opening credits, is actually a productively graceless gesture. It sets the baseline for Tár as something like a comedy, though there aren't really gags here, only the very quiet, naturalist comedy of listening to someone embarrassingly fawn over a celebrity and list her achievements like the titles of an empress or the feats of the heroine of an epic poem, poised against the equally quiet, naturalist comedy of Blanchett's Lydia graciously, ever-so-slightly-impatiently accepting such tribute as her due.
Lydia is married to her first violinist Sharon (Nina Hoss), and with Sharon she has a child, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who so seldomly enters the effectively-first-person ambit of Lydia's film that she once genuinely startled me, jump-scare-like, by crawling out of the corner of a frame. Lydia's marriage to her first violinist, anyway, seems a little inconvenient, given that Lydia also uses her orchestra as a harem. She's currently in the process of dispensing with one stale affair with her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), while making the moves to open up a new one with the provisional cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer). Such is the situation when an even older affair—if you grant it the title of "an affair," though Lydia won't acknowledge that much—comes back in the form of a suicide. Scandal follows: when whatever it was between them ended, Lydia retaliated by driving her from the orchestra and ruining her career; and by the time we're done, Lydia won't have the career she wanted, either.
So, you know, the Me Too movie that bleeds into the Cancel Culture movie. I'm not sure if there's a way to talk about it without using blunt contemporary buzzwords, though Tár is possibly the best-case scenario for such a thing. (I can imagine better, but maybe it doesn't get made.) It's sober-minded, and objective (or rather, it's uncannily meticulous, which is not the same thing). It's about as humane as it can get with such a deliberately-inhumane protagonist. Thus did it become the quintessential "challenging movie for adults" of 2022. Accordingly, it's very strategic about being as bold as "a challenging movie for adults" might indicate, its writer-director Todd Field arranging things so that he's made a movie that's as much about the conversations you'll have about his movie, where you'll probably agree with whomever you're talking to, as the conversation his movie is actually having with you. Which is "smart," in a couple of ways (not each equally admirable), but that doesn't mean that it's necessarily a particularly interesting work of art about art. I daresay it's that least of all, and not just because this movie about music isn't about music except incidentally.
It's likewise a movie about the problematic in art that isn't very concerned with actually problematizing, to the extent I assume it doesn't have any thesis on purpose. But, accepting that Field has recused his film from making any declarative statements about the abuse of power in art and where lines are to be drawn—and if "for whom" makes a difference and why—I still get the distinct impression that it thinks it's framed that question in an interesting way, and I'm not sure it does that. I realized while watching Tár that I was sweating, and while there's plenty of ways that Tár's constructed that could do that, I suspect the biggest reason was merely that I was anxious about having to have an opinion about Lydia Tár. I suppose I'm meant to appreciate that I never needed to worry, but there's very little room left for ambivalence: free to situate his fictional conductor pretty much anywhere he wanted on the whole Ansari-Ellis-Ripley-Harmon-Spacey-Lasseter-Depp-Weinstein-Cosby spectrum*, Field puts her far enough to the right that there's essentially never any question of how you're supposed to judge her, and that's simply not very morally fascinating. It deals in importance; it has nothing whatsoever important to say about this.
So in what way do I actually like this? Well, not being important—or, on its main axis, even modestly provoking—does give Tár the leave to be an extraordinarily well-made version of what it desires to be, which is probably fully four distinct things working together: a classical tragedy, in a structural sense (though it's a little too cold for any feeling of tragedy); a character study, led by Blanchett; a psychological horror film, necessarily led by Field, his cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, and his editor Monika Willi, because Blanchett's Lydia would be far too self-absorbed to ever quite recognize she's in a psychological horror film, and so it's up to them to impose it upon her; and, finally, a satire of a very particular stratum of society that can stand in for other very particular strata of society, but remain itself.
That the last is arguably what it's worst at only suggests how good this is, because it's very delightful as a satire; there's some review somewhere that uses the phrase "world-building" to describe Tár's classical music industry and while my kneejerk reaction was "God, we can't describe anything in terms that don't invoke fantasy anymore, can we?", after sitting with it, I've acknowledged that there probably isn't a better phrase—it does feel like a dystopian sci-fi movie where half the dialogue was rendered as [tech tech] in the script. I expect Field put in the work, though perhaps for someone really into classical music it's insultingly basic.
In terms of its effect, it doesn't matter: it calls forth an arcane corner of the world that is complex, refined, and deeply-rooted, yet also incestuous and divorced from any mainstream relevance. (Nevertheless, Lydia, like Tracy Jordan, has the EGOT—foreign honors that bolster her clout in this cloistered pocket dimension.) Blanchett navigates this world and makes it hers: she handles a rotating host of secondary cast members (my favorite is Mark Strong, my bald idol rendered clownish beneath a stupid wet wig), and does so with such confidence that you can actually believe, or believe that they believe, that the insanely fine-grained distinctions they've made to elevate her matter. This is handled with extreme dexterity, because (and in this way the film does turn out to have something to say) it's pretty clear that Todd Field doesn't believe there's much difference between the world's first-best conductor and its 101st, and by the end of his film you're not even going to have any firmer idea than when you started of what a conductor even does, despite Lydia explaining it with pretentious puffery that retrenches her status as the genius. (There's probably not a big difference between the first and 101st best cellist, either; hence one can make unprofessional distinctions about them, like "the one I'd like to fuck is better.")
Yet it's such a forbidding edifice that Tár presents, between Marco Bittner Rosso's production design and Bina Daigeler's costume design, plus, I suppose, the native dreariness of Berlin: this is the beigest-grayest movie you've ever fucking seen, and it's a testament to something Field's doing that this manages to stay amusing for this long—but the point is, such a gruesomely tasteful world would, almost by law of nature, produce such a thing as a Lydia Tár. And since we are talking about Tar's world, let's just hone in on one of the little smart things that indicate that Field did have some desire to subtly complicate his story, and note how actively young Olga collaborates in her own "seduction," right up until the moment Lydia is no longer useful. What that means is left up to you, but I do appreciate that Tár can still get this gnarled on its edges.
As for those other three things it wants to be, easiest to talk about them all at once: as for "tragedy," there's the script, which rides the smoothest line of foreshadowing things in ways that make damned sure you'll notice, but aren't distracting or obnoxious. Above all, there's Blanchett, handling the challenge of a role that is and must be almost exclusively charisma, frequently rather dark charisma, and not much character, an empty shell that's almost detached even from finding meaning in her art anymore, though she can fake it. Blanchett succeeds in making this seem effortless, and it must seem effortless: Lydia needs to be so charismatic that you can't avoid being overwhelmed by her force of personality—even her force of impersonality—because it's difficult not to like someone so overwhelming, especially from the other side of a screen, and Lydia's "tragedy" requires that you at least find her magnetic. Her mastery of this bewildering, alien landscape is inevitably compelling—even her mastery of seemingly every other aspect of her life is compelling, and one of my favorite moments is when she becomes a rad 80s movie antihero and threatens a child, since, to be fair, the child sort-of had it coming.
But there's that centerpiece sequence, which maybe comes too early, or maybe comes exactly early enough. If Field's goal is less to engage with discourse than to engage with engagement, it pays off here better than anywhere else, locking us in a wide-ranging yet claustrophobic-feeling long-take at Juilliard, where Lydia has deigned to speak to the new generation. She's faced here with a recalcitrant young conducting student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who, as a curated collection of marginalized identities, can't (that is, won't) relate to Bach, so Lydia determines they need to be taken down a peg. This is great—probably should've used Mahler, but you can't even make a dumb argument that Mahler wasn't oppressed—and in a world where Best Supporting Actor nominations are given to single-scene players, they ought to have given one to Smith-Gneist, who could still use it, rather than Judd Hirsch. Smith-Gneist's pretty striking, anyway, starting with physically mustering up the courage to go against a giant, his leg shaking like he's going to piss himself—something I'm not sure we're supposed to take as totally genuine, even—and ending with the way his character crudely drops their pretense at the end. Bizarrely, it's as perfect a cinematic take on a Twitter exchange as is imaginable: a stupid argument, made stupidly, concluding with you getting so Goddamn mad that you forget the ideology you got into the argument to defend in the first place. (And of course Lydia isn't interested in education: she's interested in preening dominance. Perhaps we're asked to consider if Lydia's used her identities as sword and shield, as well; Field definitely has on her behalf.) Its callback later is equally smart: someone filmed it and re-edited it to make Lydia more offensive, but the part where her edgelording did cross the line into offensiveness went completely unnoticed, because to even get it would've required actual, critical thought. But the main thing is that it's simply exhilarating to watch.
And so it's a surprise when Lydia's mastery falters—she turns out to be less intelligent than she thinks she is, and we realize the main thing we've had to go on was how intelligent she thinks she is—her arrogance making her ill-suited to handle any threat more subtle than a Juilliard dweeb. Field takes us through this long fall—slowly, then all at once (is it too obvious to say it's like... tar?). And this is very well reflected in the film taking on more and more of an elliptical shape as it progresses, till ultimately we start bouncing forward in time what must be months or even years, in the same way, I think, that Lydia herself is refusing to actually deal with her descent in any way that she might be forced to feel even slightly culpable for it. It's curiously-built as a cinematic machine: the movie itself feels chilly and distant, like it's waiting outside the universe until Judgment Day to render its own verdict. And this is funny because while that's absolutely the tone that Field's aesthetic strikes—I lost count of the number of shots that are composed with the subjects blocked deep into the backs of huge, empty, tasteful rooms—Field's narrative feels almost entirely set inside Lydia's own head, particularly the motif of mysterious noises that keep sneaking up to remind Lydia of her sins. All of them can, technically, still be squared with "realism," but obviously they wouldn't be in the movie if they weren't so symbolic. The remoteness of this aesthetic is, in a sense, its protagonist's own point-of-view. Yet there's one absolutely splendid shot echoed across about two hours that finally does bring her to some realization about herself. It's savage about the environment that spawned her, too.
It's a little too much, perhaps: I could think of ways to start compressing some of these ideas into shorter spans (since I started with a comparison to Babylon, I'll finish with one, and remark that Tar's most obviously redundant scene is remarkably similar to the superfluous Tobey Maquire Hell Sequence in Babylon and not half as interesting on its merits). But I've managed to talk myself into loving it.
*Behold: I have made more of an actual statement about the issue and taken more of a risk in literally one single clause than Tár does in 158 minutes—though I guess I didn't say when I start caring.