In one scene of Todd Field’s newest drama, Lydia Tár (the effervescent Cate Blanchett) is teaching a class in which a BIPOC non-binary student opposes the glorification of the most respected classical musicians, many of whom have been known for their racist, homophobic or sexist views. Tár humiliates him on the class forum and, thereafter, continues a class as if nothing had just transpired. Although there are many other gasp-inducing scenes, including the legendary Q&A opening, the discussed moment especially provokes a reflection. Should we continue to learn and admire those who created or invented something amazing but were awful people? Or should their art always be separated from their private lives? Those and many more questions are pondered in Tár as we observe the rise, the glory, and the demise of the title character, eminently portrayed by Blanchett.
If we had only one word to describe Lydia Tár, perhaps it would be ambitious, whether seen negatively or positively. Tár, a professor at the Berlin Philharmonic, is a ruthless perfectionist who is exceedingly unforgiving. With a Harvard Ph.D., the conductor belongs to the so-called EGOT club, having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. She achieves every goal, leaving behind a trail of broken people who lost faith in art but who, perhaps, could have been great conductors if it wasn’t for her. But all that is seemingly meaningless, especially to Tár, who wholeheartedly believes that her skill and talent should speak for her, not her personal life. Lydia, a wife to Sharon (Nina Hoss), and an adoptive mom to Petra (Mika Bogojevic, sows fear and intimidation wherever she goes. It even influences her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), a timid but clever woman who dreams of the conductor career herself.
As the film ponders the matter of power and how easy it is for one in a high position to abuse that power, Blanchett’s performance persistently amazes. It’s as if watching music flowing through her as Lydia conducts, cheats, and sows fear. However, Tár also illustrates that nobody is free from the consequences of their actions, no matter how brilliant. In what’s a masterclass in character study surrounded by impressive Western classical music, curated, composed, and produced by Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir, we watch as Tár’s life unravels.
Blanchett’s Lydia could undoubtedly be an international inspiration, perhaps an LGBTQ+ icon, managing to shatter a glass ceiling. She could be the icon, but she chooses not to. Instead, Tár takes a crack at the audience’s sanity; we want to hate her but yet admire her overriding passion and hate ourselves for it instead. Perhaps it means to make us feel powerless in contrast to the lead, just like the people who the conductor broke before. When one of the woman’s former students, Krista Taylor, keeps coming back and sending invasive emails, her life begins to unravel even further. Especially after a tragedy occurs involving the younger conductor.
Krista haunts Lydia at every step; it feels almost paranormal at times. Field deftly blends the supernatural with reality to emphasize Lydia’s life in rumble even further. For example, one night, the metronome in her study begins ticking in the middle of the night. Not Sharon nor Petra moved it. Lydia is slowly losing control and grip on her previously primeval life. When it comes to this matter, Tár is infatuated with control, although she’d probably argue with that statement. She even attempts, perhaps unconsciously so, to control her new pupil’s dish choice when they’re at the welcoming lunch. She manipulates and lies, and after all, she believes in her own lies. But as more people find out about Krista and the nature of her relationship with Lydia, the control slips from the conductor’s hands.
In the spectacular third act, we witness the fall of once great Lydia Tár. The director lets us decide whether we agree with Lydia or not. Tár remains objective and doesn’t side with either view on the subject when illustrating the life of the conductor. It’s for us to decide and further ponder Lydia’s strong stances on the subject depicted in the film. Of course, for Blanchett’s character, there was a personal gain in her attitude. But Tár certainly provokes to re-analyzing the matter.
An impressive performance of Blanchett continues to shine brightly all the way through. With the director’s well-crafted character, Field bestows upon the audience a phenomenal character study. Supposedly, the director wrote the role specifically for Blanchett, and it’s only proved in the execution; Lydia Tár irrevocably belongs to the actor. Hoss, as well as Merlant, in addition to the star of the film, represent an immeasurable contrast of the conductor as, respectively, Sharon and Francesca. Despite their characters providing more of a background for Lydia’s spiral of madness, they remain memorable in viewers’ minds.
Thanks to its astonishing presence of classical music, the flawless cast ensemble, and the layered premise, Tár is more than a Me-Too-themed film about one that abused power, harassed, and blackmailed. It haunts us long after with questions around the separation of the artists from their personal lives and whether it’s morally correct or not. Without one doubt, Field’s drama will remain a thought-provoking piece, charming with Blanchett’s nomination-worthy performance.