“TÁR” is so much more than the Great American Movie about “cancel culture” — a phrase that it humiliates with every movement — but this dense and difficult portrait of a female conductor’s fall from grace also demands to be seen through that singular lens from its very first shot. Todd Field’s thrilling, deceptively austere third film exalts in grabbing the electrified fence of digital-age discourse with both hands and daring us to hold onto it for 158 minutes in the hopes that we might ultimately start to feel like we’re shocking ourselves.
“TÁR” is a provocation full of slow-motion suckerpunches and the driest of laughs (even its accented title is a knowingly pretentious in-joke) and yet Field seems as uninterested in trolling his liberal audience as he is in patronizing them. That sounds like a tough needle to thread for a film so micro-targeted that it opens with a long, long scene of its subject onstage for an expository conversation with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who needs no introduction.
But the “Little Children” maestro’s first movie in 16 years — and the only original screenplay he’s ever directed — isn’t quite the ultra-mordant satire you might imagine if someone just told you where its final scene takes place. On the contrary, Field has come back to us with a savage yet acutely sincere character study that’s slathered in a million shades of gray. “TÁR” tells the story of a trailblazing woman whose aspiration to embody the grandeur of the past makes her vulnerable to the uniquely modern pitfalls of the present. The film is every bit as brilliant and implosive as she is.
“TÁR” boasts the sweep and frustrated gravitas of a project that Field has been working on since the day he stepped out of the spotlight more than a decade ago, and yet it tells a story that could only have taken shape during the last stretch of his absence. Fearless in a way that allows its heroine to seem blithely unaware as to what she’s supposed to be afraid of, this is the kind of film that could only be made by someone who’s been watching the world burn from the sidelines for so long — long enough that he doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t play with fire himself, and from a distance that allows him to keep his attention focused squarely on the nature of what’s fueling it.
“TÁR” will probably gross all of $57 at the box office (give or take), but everyone who buys a ticket will be inspired to destroy their own German orchestra from the inside out, or at least write a thinkpiece about why. Let’s not hold that against one of the boldest and most exciting new American movies I’ve seen in years.
Following in the massive footsteps of creative giants like Scott Rudin and Tracy Jordan, Lydia Tár is one of the only living people to have won an EGOT. Of course, whatever awards might crowd the mantel of the brutalist apartment that Lydia shares with her partner/concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter in Berlin are merely progress markers on the New York-born conductor’s fated path towards the sort of immortality reserved for the legends of her field.
Legends such as Gustav Mahler, whose fifth symphony Lydia will soon record with the German orchestra she’s led for the last seven years, cementing her legacy as the greatest maestro of her time. Leonard Bernstein, who taught Lydia everything he knew about keeping time, and defying it. Johann Sebastian Bach, an über-demanding asshole whose music endures despite the fact that it’s become symbolic of the classical world’s exclusionary whiteness.
Lydia’s heroes, we note, are all men, whereas she is a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” who styles herself after Céline Sciamma (it would seem), eviscerates her enemies with a single flex of her razor-sharp cheekbones, and refuses to make a “gender spectacle” out of her well-earned success as the world’s first and only female conductor of a major orchestra. We can only imagine how brilliant a woman like Lydia had to be in order to fly so close to the heavens — or what she had to do in order to stay there for so long — but “TÁR” will depict in exacting detail what the world might look like to someone who can’t see beyond the sun in their eyes.
Blanchett makes for a magnificent 21st century Icarus. Expertly weaponizing her inimitable gravitas away from art and towards predatory self-preservation instead, the “Carol” star commands the movie’s lengthy and unbroken scenes as if she were conducting them herself; as Lydia gradually loses her ability to modulate the tempo of the world around her, “TÁR” finds a sickening pleasure in the dissonance between a spiraling character and an actor in perfect control of her instrument.
We’ve seen Blanchett play women on the verge of a nervous breakdown before, but she’s never obliterated herself on screen with such concussive force. The controlled demolition of a performance she delivers here provides a more nuanced (and cautiously sympathetic) interpretation of the social dynamics behind the #MeToo movement than any male actor or character might be able to offer. It’s because of Blanchett that “TÁR” is able to elevate the uselessly outmoded paradigm of separating the art from the artist into the visceral portrait of an artist separating from herself.
Lydia is a harsh and unsparing character whose flesh is probably closer to shark cartilage than skin, but the power of her genius has been corrupted by the genius of her power, and we can’t help but wince at how earnestly she believes that each of those things is required to complete the other — operating in sync like the hands of a clock, or those of a conductor with similar precision.
Actually, identifying it as a conscious belief isn’t quite right; it would be more accurate to describe Lydia’s mindset as a side effect of the system that has consecrated her success. The system that enforces the same hierarchy Lydia’s fame would seem to disrupt, and the system that has convinced her that she can only affirm her status by abusing it at every opportunity.
Needless to say, that doesn’t bode very well for the fellowship that Linda and investment banker/wannabe conductor Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) have created to support female musicians in the classical music community. One of those young musicians — a twentysomething violinist named Krista Taylor — seems to have had a particularly traumatic experience under Lydia’s intimate tutelage, and has been hounding the conductor with cryptic pleas for attention that Lydia doesn’t want to hear (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” breakout Noémie Merlant plays Lydia’s full-time assistant and part-time accomplice, feeding her boss little white pills and silencing her victims in exchange for the orchestra promotion she’s implicitly been promised).
Lydia protects herself with the aura of her own perfection, insisting that her pursuit of kavanah — a Hebrew word referring to the concentrated mental state required for ritualistic devotion — excuses any collateral damage that might befall the “robots” who get in her way. She is Moses standing on the mountaintop and bringing the word of God down to the masses, a gifted conduit for a message that has long been defined by its means of delivery.
It’s a role that Field illustrates across the span of the stunning early sequence shot in which Lydia humiliates a jittery BIPOC Juilliard student for his refusal to play the music of a racist dead white man like Bach. “Don’t be so eager to be offended,” Lydia jaws at him from her seat at the piano, “the narcissism of small differences leads to conformity.” As with many of this strict but unfussy film’s most breathless scenes, the tension doesn’t come from a tug-of-war between two competing perspectives, but rather from how they constrict together and choke each other to death.
On the one hand, Lydia argues that a single piece can be transformed by an infinite array of interpretations; she plays a simple melody in three widely different ways, providing one of the precious few moments in which anyone in this movie is actually seen creating music (Field usually cuts away with a fetishistic sense of deprivation, edging his audience towards the third act climax). On the other hand, she’s also reaffirming the age-old notion that art’s power is inextricable from the power that we assign it. That art can’t be preserved if we don’t allow it to ossify, and vice-versa. “They can’t all conduct, honey,” Lydia coos at her daughter much later in the story. “It’s not a democracy.”
In context, Lydia’s argument has its own suffocating merits, but Field shoots it in a single long-take so that he can chop it up on social media after Krista’s suicide ignites a viral firestorm over the conductor’s alleged misconduct. Lydia demands to know where Twitter was when Schopenhauer threw some random old woman down a flight of stairs, but power has always been a devil’s bargain, and everyone in “TÁR” is forced to keep their own receipts for the transactional relationships that hold our world together.
Where a lesser version of this story might have trended towards victim-blaming — or been so afraid to do so that it bent itself into frustratingly didactic shape — “TÁR” crescendos by further aligning itself with Lydia as it goes along. The film doesn’t take her side, per se, but rather embraces her subjectivity until even the most crucial story beats are played off-screen just because Lydia refuses to hear them.
That slow-motion unraveling is transposed against the conductor’s relationship with a rising young cellist in her orchestra (first-time British actor Sophie Kauer, instantly believable as the Russian Olga Metkina). The dynamic between them unfolds like a reprise of Lydia’s tryst with Krista, echoes of which only grow louder in Lydia’s ears over the course of a movie that splits the difference between the drab psychic pall of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” and the unsmiling dreaminess of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” — in which Field himself played jazz pianist Nick Nightingale. Nothing says “Time’s Up” quite like the ticking metronome that Lydia hears in the middle of the night.
The predatory intentionality of Lydia’s approach is undeniable, regardless of Olga’s reaction to it, but even more overt is how these women don’t have any other way to interact with each other. The institution that brings them together is so inflexibly hierarchical that every chair is assigned a specific importance based on its distance from the podium, and any hint of desire between the people who sit in them — personal or professional, appropriate or otherwise — is tainted by its proximity to power.
To that point, “TÁR” is utterly convincing in how it depicts the gossip and politics behind an elite orchestra, with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s unobtrusive score helping to smooth over the seams even as Lydia comes apart on screen.
But it’s the undoing that makes “TÁR” such a tour de force, this long and patient movie growing less abstract and more unflinchingly personal as Lydia reaches the end of her rope. Oppressive sheets of gray sky and colorless slabs of concrete — only punctuated by text bubbles and errant glimpses of ripe fruit during the first two hours — eventually give way to the unexpected hum of hot neon lights.
The last stages of this story (and its smirking humdinger of a final shot) are velveted by a soft glow that feels universes removed from the brutal rigidity of its build-up, and, with impressive boldness, they manage to rescue “TÁR” from the same cynicism that once seemed certain to smother it.
“TÁR” might be seen as a social lighting rod upon its initial release, if it’s seen at all. But it will endure because of the strange notes it strikes amid a world of white noise; because of how unflinchingly it watches Lydia “obliterate herself before the music,” and how convincingly it entertains the remote possibility that she might find a way to hear herself in it again.
“Tár” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on Friday, October 7.
With ‘Tár,’ Todd Field Returns to Directing. Where Has He Been?
Maybe Todd Field isn’t ready to reappear just yet.
After launching his directing career with the auspicious one-two punch of “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Little Children” (2006), Field all but vanished from view. His first film in 16 years, the Cate Blanchett drama “Tár,” will make its highly anticipated premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday. But a few weeks ago, when Field signed on to Zoom to discuss his long absence from movie theaters, I found myself interviewing an empty screen.
“Sorry about that,” the 58-year-old filmmaker said, explaining that the laptop he’d shipped to his Maine home after a family vacation hadn’t yet arrived. “I’m at home on my desktop machine, and you’re talking to a filmmaker with no access to a camera.”
It’s a predicament Field knows all too well. After his first two movies both drew Oscar nominations, he was hailed by critics as one of the best new American directors, but all attempts to mount a third project were stymied. His film adaptations of the novels “Blood Meridian,” “The Creed of Violence” and “Beautiful Ruins” never made it into production, and though Field spent years working on a biopic of the deserting American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, co-writing a political thriller with Joan Didion, and scripting a huge Showtime series based on the Jonathan Franzen book “Purity,” those projects ultimately fell apart, too.
So Field has kept busy, even if audiences haven’t gotten to see the fruits of those labors. Soon, though, their patience will be rewarded with the juicy “Tár,” which casts Blanchett as Lydia Tár, a celebrated conductor who revels in the acclaim, attention and power of her station until the flames of controversy begin to singe her well-tailored pantsuits. Focus Features will release the film in theaters on Oct. 7; expect robust conversations to follow about the way “Tár” intersects with hot-button issues like identity politics and cancel culture.
Field is eager for that debate, though he’s less excited about the red carpets and klieg-light Hollywood attention he’ll face after years of being away. “It’s Oz, you know: All of a sudden you’re in a chair and they’re giving you new hair and new nails and they’re changing your gingham dress,” he said. “I think some people handle it particularly well and are super comfortable with it, and there’s a part of me that truly envies those individuals, but that is not me. I probably would make more films if I didn’t have to go through that.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What do the next couple of weeks look like for you?
Very busy. The film will have its first public premiere on Sept. 1 at Venice, and it’ll be the first time that any of us will have seen it with an audience. So it will be very, very exciting and horrifying at the same time.
Has that always been your experience of a film premiere, both exciting and horrifying?
I think it has been, and I don’t know why. On “In the Bedroom,” I went to the emergency room with a very tight chest where I felt like I was having a heart attack.
Are you taking any steps to mitigate that this month?
You mean medication, meditation?
Homeopathy? Prayer? Burning sage? I don’t know, Kyle. I’ve had a very long time between films, so I hope that I’ve found other ways to deal with that sort of anxiety, but we shall see.
What was it like to have all that time between films?
Very peaceful. I have three grown children, and we thought we were finished. Shortly after making “Little Children,” we had the surprise. I made a pledge to myself to not be running around unless I had a very good reason, and to actually have an opportunity to raise a child at this age. I wanted to be able to experience things like coaching Little League, being there at a P.T.A. meeting and going fishing. So I set my sights in a very particular way on certain material that was probably very tough to get made.
Material like “Purity,” which was meant to be a 20-hour limited series starring Daniel Craig?
Yeah, go big or go home, you know? We wrote 2,000 pages for that series, and that project was set up at Showtime, which, at that point in time, was still a cable television company. What we were proposing to them was, “Use this as a way to go through the door that is inevitable for you, into a streaming service. You need to do something that’s big and has some sweep to it.” But yes, it was large and ambitious, and they didn’t ultimately have the belly for it.
How were you able to pour so much into projects that may never be made, and to move on when they weren’t?
It’s kind of like, how can some actors audition and give everything for a part and not get it — how do they let it go and start all over again? I know some absolutely extraordinary actors who simply were not built to handle the rejection of auditions, but that’s part of this process. You have to believe every time that there will be light at the end of that, when it’s very, very likely there won’t be. [Field himself is a former actor whose credits include “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Ruby in Paradise.”]
It’s interesting that it took so long for you to make your next film because “Tár” doesn’t feel dated at all. The way it understands smartphone culture and the power of social media and modern identity politics makes it feel ruthlessly up to the minute.
I’m glad to hear you say that because that’s a real moving target. God forbid you should ever do anything contemporary, because it’s going to be stale tomorrow. Part of the reason for that is the tempo in which this happened. Focus went to extraordinary lengths once they read the script to say, “Yes, we want to make it. Let’s go.” From the time the script was handed in to the time you saw it is less than two years, and in Hollywood, that’s like light speed. That never happens, you know?
Did you feel like Focus had called your bluff?
Yeah, I was really upset with them. I’m so used to turning in scripts and having everybody say, “Wow, good job,” and then nothing happens, so I’ve sort of accepted that as part of my life. The idea that I was going to have to go away from home for over a year and actually make a film just seemed so absurd to me. I told them at the time, “You guys are out of your mind. You don’t want to make this movie.” But they were adamant about it.
Why did “Tár” feel like such a radical thing for them to make?
When you look at what are considered theatrical films now, that has changed radically since I was making my last film. And, in terms of putting a film like this on the big screen, which, as far as I’m concerned, is exactly where it belongs, I don’t think that a lot of other people outside Focus Features would believe in that. It takes a huge amount of faith and investment to say, “No, this is a story that is worth seeing in a collective atmosphere with other people, and not at home while grabbing your phone, or the remote, or cooking.” And that sort of philosophy is increasingly rare.
Lydia Tár is a fascinating character. She’s built herself to be bigger than just an artist — she’s an entire brand, luxuriating in her celebrity while also guarding it with no small measure of paranoia.
Yes, and can she trust her relationships? When you talk to anyone who has achieved any modicum of fame, they’re always suspicious about what someone’s angle is. “Why do they want to talk to me? Do they really care about me?” That elephant is always in the room, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to either try to silo it from yourself, or to service it. But it’s not a particularly productive way to conduct a creative life.
Or to remain a person in public.
Especially today, because no one’s anonymous now. But your anonymity is absolutely essential as somebody that makes things because you have to be able to observe without being the observed.
Tár is audacious when it comes to her ambition. I’d imagine it requires a lot of audacity to become a filmmaker, too.
Absolutely. There’s parallels throughout with the making of a film. It’s very much like an orchestra with a conductor.
Has that audacity come easily to you?
This is a massive generalization, but I think when you’re a very young person, you have the ferocity of supposed know-how, and you’re very, very quick to make decisions. There’s a reason they send young people to war, you know? I think as you get older, the challenge is to try to have enough self-awareness to understand where your instincts take you and why they might be taking you there. Is it worth your time? Is it worth other peoples’ time? Those are the great unanswered questions, but they’re also not mitigating the fact that to do this sort of thing, you have to be an extreme masochist.
The cliché of filmmaking is that there’s nothing particularly glamorous or healthy about it. There has to be a reason you’re getting up in the middle of the night, you’re driving everyone that works with you absolutely crazy: You’re obsessed with this thing, you know what it looks like, and it can’t be anything but that. It takes on a life-and-death situation for you because you’ve forged that sword and you’ll die on that sword, and you’re deluded enough to believe that everyone else should die on that sword with you.
“Tár” grapples with issues of power and sex. Over the last few years, there has been a reckoning in Hollywood about those same issues. What have you made of it?
We’re talking about a story that revolves around power dynamics and transactional relationships, but those are two-way streets. No one’s innocent and no one’s entirely guilty, either. Absolutes are nonsense unless they’re sporting events.
You’re talking about a really scary human truth, which is how people take power and use power, or how power uses others. And this is like Arthur Miller or Nathaniel Hawthorne stuff, which is how we discern what we really think about situations based on a limited set of knowledge. What we’re told, what we know, what we don’t know — that does interest me a lot.
What are you most looking forward to about the conversations that this film will provoke over the next few months?
Well, I hope they’re healthy and lively and ferocious, and anything but indifferent. No two people see the same movie. What I have to say is irrelevant — it’s the person watching the film that’s ultimately the filmmaker, you know? I’d like to just keep my mouth shut and listen to what people have to say, because that’s why I made it.
It feels like a “parking lot” movie, the kind you want to discuss and debate with friends when you’re leaving the theater.
I hope that’s true. I’ve talked to people who have seen the movie twice, and that conversation was very different after the second viewing. The first time we screened the film, we flew to California and screened it for everyone at Focus. The lights came up. We were understandably anxious about what was coming next, and everyone turned around and they just stared at us blankly. I thought, “Uh-oh, we’re in real trouble.”
And then everyone started talking, and it became this four-hour conversation. They just wanted to talk about the film. The next day, we screened the film. It was supposed to be just for one person that was coming in to help us for a technical issue, and the door opened and the same room was filled again with everybody from Focus. I said, “What are you doing back here?” They said, “We want to see it again.”