Todd Field understands shame. His 2006 drama Little Children reckoned with the guilt that accompanies small-town living, in which neighbours scrutinise each other’s secrets, impulsive mistakes and deliberate crimes are accorded the same judgment and personal failings become public record, to be remembered forever. He magnifies the glare of that scandal in Tár, a study of an orchestra conductor so consumed by the craft that all of life becomes a carefully constructed performance. Between music that is timeless, and a movie that’s very much of this time, Field constructs a nuanced look at ‘cancel culture’ — less about whether the art can be separated from the artist, and more about whether his protagonist, whose professional ability to creatively interpret blends into her personal tendency to take liberties with the truth, can even tell the difference anymore.
His Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a mass of contradictions. Hers is the story of a woman who’s one of the greatest living composers, but it’s also one that builds to her professional demise. She can turn a critical eye to any score but remains glaringly blind to her own flaws. She’s started a programme that greatly benefits young female conductors, but staunchly defends the importance of old White men in the canon. The camerawork seizes on her duality, swivelling around from the loving smile with which she sees her daughter off at school to the unpleasant line her mouth settles into as she confronts her child’s bully seconds later. She raises and dashes the expectations of subordinates as deftly as she guides the ebb and flow of a concert. “Sublimate yourself, your ego and your identity. Stand before God and obliterate yourself,” she barks at a retreating student. But this is also a woman who speaks of the ability to hold and shape time itself with the wave of her hand. Can someone who plays God really believe in the existence of another?
From the opening credits — moved to the start of the film, and played in reverse with Field’s name appearing last — the writer-director establishes this movie as one of power structures and their dismantling. For a large part of the film, Tár is placed in positions of power, whether in front of an adoring audience, a giddy fan, her assistant, her students, or her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who’s the first violinist in her orchestra. Her German isn’t subtitled, deliberately throwing the audience for a loop, an effect compounded by her imposing presence. Blanchett is superb, an artist in full control of her craft even as her character begins to grasp wildly at the receding notes of hers. Her intonations make rehearsed statements sound spontaneous as she navigates playing a woman whose exactingly precise line of work is offset by the gross miscalculations she makes in her personal relationships. As the camera moves through the hallowed halls she inhabits — large, white, sparse — she’s the vortex into which we’re drawn. Despite her public-facing profession, and the ease at which she commands the stage, Tár’s death grip of control is so absolute, she’s the only person she can trust to author the book about her life. Tár on Tár, it’s called. That’s the thing about people this meticulously put together though — it only takes a little manoeuvring to make them fall apart.
Tár might she’s embraced the ghosts of the past, dining at the same places composers like Beethoven did and celebrating their work, but what she doesn’t realise is that her actions have put her in the position to be uniquely haunted in the present moment, defined by social media and the #MeToo movement. If every relationship in Tár’s life has been transactional, the film is a fascinating account of how the bill has now come due. Ghostly figures appear in the corners of her apartment. When a doctor diagnoses Tár with notalgia paresthetica, she mishears it as “nostalgia”, a perverse joke to a woman who has none for the past she’s been trying desperately to outrun.
The full scope of Tár’s misconduct might be ambiguous, but in a movie dominated by music, Field leaves little clues in the silences — the split-second hesitations, the resigned lack of words, the shifting eyelines. This is a rare film that doesn’t dabble in black and white, trusting the audience to parse the nuances of Tár’s actions, and the idea of ‘cancel culture’ as a whole. When a BIPOC pangender student cites Bach’s misogyny as a valid reason not to study him in the modern era, there’s an irony to how the charged scene ends with him calling Tár a bitch, a gendered insult. Gender also complicates and elevates what might have otherwise become an obvious story about a problematic man. Tár might demur at her gender being a topic of discussion, but the same force of self-belief that leads a woman to fight her way into becoming the first female conductor of a German orchestra will also become the hubris that leads her to assume she’s indestructible.
In one scene, the sounds that make their way into Tár’s composition are revealed to be coming from the medical device of a frail elderly woman living next door. Is art this inextricable from suffering? Are power and predation two sides of the same coin? Field doesn’t supply all the answers, but what he does provide is an utterly absorbing portrait of an artist whose mastery over time ends with her counting down the seconds to her own implosion.
This review was originally published as part of coverage on the Berlin International Film Festival.