The weight of controversy looms over Tár right from the beginning. As its star, Cate Blanchett, instantly commands the screen in an Oscar-worthy performance, you can’t help but remember that her Best Actress win in 2014 is tainted by virtue of being for a Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. When her co-star from that film, Alec Baldwin, appears by voice as himself, you’ll undoubtedly think of his support for Allen amid the #MeToo movement as well as his involvement in the Rust set shooting.
Tár follows a character similarly swept up in a scandal. But it isn’t comfortably digestible Oscar bait that easily earns your empathy. It can even be a grating watch that makes you wince and itch. However, such is the contemporary experience of tumbling down the rabbit hole with so many problematic public figures. Like their stories, Tár will chill your bones and haunt your thoughts.
Blanchett plays maestra Lydia Tár, a conductor and composer poised to release an autobiography and record Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s at the peak of her powers — the perfect time for a downward spiral. Amid radio interviews and a public talk with the New Yorker, we hear her speak in hushed tones with her assistant (Noémie Merlant of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) about a former protégé sending ominous emails that could be destructive if leaked. Time’s up for Tár, it seems.
The conductor seems to know her clock is winding down early on when a Juilliard student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) casually dismisses the music of Bach, saying, “Wasn’t he a misogynist anyway?” — not even confident in his reasoning for “canceling” the composer. When Tár scolds him for this stance, we see the fear behind her ferocity, and we realize she’s defending herself as much as she is protecting the legacy of Bach. If the long-dead composer is catching flak for maybe being misogynistic back in the 1700s, what chance does she have of surviving now?
This scene works better upon reflection. After Tár gets carried away in the #MeToo movement, we see how her abrasive behavior earlier on comes out of anxiety and desperation. But in the moment, you may find yourself fixated on the character’s annoying quirks: the pretentiously lofty preaching; the quickness to criticize; her obnoxiously drawn-out, throaty pronunciation of “Bach.” Here, Blanchett and writer-director Todd Field pull a trick on the audience, persuading us to dismiss her professional pursuits based on her personality, thus putting us in the same position as the student who’s “not into Bach.” But unlike him, they don’t let us walk out on her.
The film goes on to show Tár dancing with her partner (Nina Hoss), playing with her daughter (Mila Bogojevic), admiring the raw talent of a young cellist (Sophie Kauer). Surely it’s impossible to dismiss her after all of that. Well, we also see her steal her lover’s heart medication, scare the bejesus out of her daughter’s bully, and make some suspicious professional moves regarding the cellist.
Field’s first film in 16 years, Tár is a far cry from his more relatable domestic dramas, In the Bedroom and Little Children. While those films largely take place in more familiar small-town settings with generally more likable people, the events of Tár play out in chilly hotels, theaters and lecture halls, where stuffy intellectuals let out haughty laughter about poor piano posture, among other petty observations. It’s an initially off-putting world that grows intoxicating as the film progresses, due in large part to Florian Hoffmeister’s fittingly controlled, distanced cinematography and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score.
Tár often feels like a psychological horror film as it plumbs the depths of its protagonist’s dark heart.
In a culture increasingly focused on gaining a black-and-white sense of who people are, Tár refreshingly focuses on the shades of gray. There’s no doubt this character exhibits cruelty and deserves comeuppance. But thanks to Blanchett’s layered, deeply felt performance and Field’s sensitive direction, the film never lets us dismiss her. In one of the year’s most powerful endings, it makes us squirm as it exposes the awkward, deafening silence that can sometimes befall us when we strip an artist from their art.