Tár is Todd Field’s first film in sixteen years – and, like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, it feels like a statement that’s been years in the making. After the briefest of preludes, Field begins, magisterially, by rolling the entire credit sequence in reverse order, building a sense of enormous anticipation for the two-hour-plus epic that is to come. It is, in effect, the film’s overture, epigraph for a character – maestro Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett – who is every bit as grand in scale as the film itself. Field doesn’t introduce Tár so much as immerse us in her, by way of a Lincoln Centre colloquium in which real-life critic Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker outlines her dazzling resume, which includes academia, composition, field world and, of course, conducting. This sequence effectively does away with the need for further exposition, by presenting Tár as a fully-fledged genius, an insurmountable global ubermensch.
Of course, there’s a tension, right from the start, in presenting Tár as a classical musical genius. Time and again, the film reminds us that this particular brand of genius has traditionally been the province of men, whom it has given license to act in frankly horrific ways. As a butch lesbian in a man’s world, Tár has to inhabit this tension, and initially seems quite disdainful of resorting to anything resembling identity politics to combat it. She introduces herself as her father’s daughter, rags on a Juilliard student who dares to question Bach’s personal life, reveals that she has no interest in the date of International Women’s Day, and blithely introduces herself as her daughter’s father to a nine-year old bully. Conducting becomes a way of tapping into the primal phallic power of the classical muse, and cementing her relationship with her mentor Leonard Bernstein as the shared regard of a gay woman and a gay man, converging on a masculine ideal that neither of them quite occupy.
Like Whiplash, then, Tár is partly a rumination on whether (male) genius is inherently monstrous – and whether one has to be a monster to nurture a certain type of (male) genius. Tár is quite frank about the appalling personal lives of Mahler, Bach and Beethoven, and soon joins their ranks when a former mentee, Krista Taylor, commits suicide, and leaves possible evidence to the effect that Tár exploited their relationship. One of the strengths of Field’s film is that it remains ambiguous, or perhaps ambivalent, about whether Tár was culpable in this respect, and never excavates the exact details of her musical relationship with Lydia. Instead, the contested space between Tár and Lydia becomes a way of examining what is at stake in the hubristic legacy of male genius, along with the ways in which a certain cynical kind of “cancel culture” might end up harming more than helping women – or at least ensuring that things remain the same under the guise of a more liberated outlook and regime. Watching Tár’s eventual downfall, which culminates with a male subordinate stealing her orchestral manuscripts, I thought of Kate Millett: “Patriarchy, reformed or unreformed, is patriarchy still: its worst abuses purged or foresworn, it may actually be more stable and secure then before.”
The situation is considerably more complex in that Field himself clearly aspires to this mode of genius – this is film as symphony, cinema that yearns to the greatest heights of classical music. Above all, Tár is a meditation on the myth of the auteur, much as Tár herself is less a character than an emblem of virtuosity. For the first hour, she barely has anything in the way of dialogue, instead delivering dense musicological discourse that, to anyone but the academic specialist, must be about sound more than content, textured by obscure terminology, incessant name-dropping, and continuous flourishes in other languages. It’s closer to a dramatic monologue, with occasional musical interludes – or like watching a New Yorker article brought to life, which is literally what takes place in the opening colloquium. Even when dialogue does start to emerge, it’s subsumed into the rhythms of Blanchett’s acting, in a fusion of film and masterclass in which Field the auteur merges with Blanchett the maestro. This is a highly plastic performance – her American accent has never sounded more artificial – and so tends to work best when Tár is meticulously curating her own image. In one terrific sequence, she moves from consulting with theatre technicians, to negotiating with an album cover photographer, to cutting images of herself from a magazine for her “sundries.”
The result is an ethic of extreme exactitude that is mirrored in the neobrutalist décor and design – all concrete, cold light, brilliant glass, steely fixtures, and black and white palettes, or else the crisp mimimalism of concert halls, spaces that deliberately subsume visual stimuli into the austerity of sound. On the rare occasions when Tár ventures outside, she’s aways speeding through narrow corridors of space, much as she glides through the beton brut passages of her apartment. Strikingly, for a film that’s all about music, there’s almost no soundtrack, and rehearsal scenes are quite sparing, meaning that when the orchestra does finally start up, it’s absolutely thunderous – this is a film that needs to be heard in a theatre – reinvesting the delicacy of classical music with the brutality of noise. In all this, Tár is also somewhat of a brutalist edifice in herself, often facing the camera as she faces the orchestra, from such a monumental distance that her eyes are bright and distant as skyscraper windows.
Since the film positions itself at the fluid interface between Tár and world, between genius and monstrosity, there’s little character development in the conventional sense. Instead, Tár registers the growing rumours around Krista, and the gradual falling away of her classical musical peers, as a series of errant sounds that she tries to rein into her daily auditorium. These sounds all rest upon three building blocks that occur in quick succession midway through the film – an unseen musician who walks across stage for a blind audition, a doorbell that rings in a neighbouring apartment, and a scream that Tár hears while running in a park. Recognising the footsteps on the way out, she modifies her score; later, she tries to incorporate the tones of the doorbell into her composition; and later still, she attempts to seek out the location of the scream, as the camera circles her in the dusk light in one of the most disorienting moments in the film. But all three attempts fail, and all three sounds escalate into a series of hallucinatory phantasms that usher in the last movement of the film.
This movement traces Tár’s wholesale rejection by the musical world. The errant sounds on the fringes of her consciousness now migrate into a broader porosity, and a collapse of the tightly confined brutalist spaces of the film proper, a process that unfolds in three distinct phases. The first unfolds in New York, where all of Field’s tightly wound tracking shots through the Holland Tunnel now dissolve into a more amorphous streetscape, as Tár seeks out new representation. For the first time, we see her framed against a large urban backdrop, by daylight – a building site, where a jackhammer continues to shudder into her brain long after she heads inside for her new agents to insist that “we’re going to build things from the ground up.” Their strategies can’t work very well, however, since the film quickly shifts to the second stage in her devolution, which takes place in Southeast Asia. Noise is now as ambient and sticky as the air, as Tár repeatedly tries and fails to recapture the austere containment of her former life – by voyaging up the river from Apocalypse Now, by immersing herself in a cave behind a waterfall, by retreating to a massage parlour – but each attempt simply reiterates the liquid flow of noise, the sense of being perpetually watched and scrutinised, even here.
Hence the emotional climax of the film, which occurs when the massage manager invites Tár to choose a young woman from the “fishbowl” – a glass-fronted tableau of ingenues gazing straight out at her. So acutely does this tableau both draw on the austerity of the opening movements and encapsulate the impossibility of returning to them that Tár hallucinates one of the women as Krista, and flees from the scene. When we next see her, it’s in the third and most emphatic stage of her decline – conducting an amateur orchestra for what turns out to be a fan screening of Monster Hunter. Just when Tár seems to have returned, albeit provisionally, to the chambers of classical music, her orchestra expands out into worlds of diffuse and digital fandom that she can only distantly comprehend. The adoring audiences of her former audience are dispersed into a broader typology of fandom that refuses to alight upon her as its main point of focus, even as her acute visibility is what brought her here to begin with. In these closing scenes, Field evokes something of the experience of being a woman in a man’s world – consigned to be forever hypervisible and invisible, both punished for not being male and for leaning into male behaviour too drastically. The more that Tár plays the butch, the more the world, and the film, seems to drag her into the femme, and the film remains poised on that tension to the very end, raising questions it doesn’t dare to answer.