Following fifteen years in hibernation, Todd Field came back with Tár, a Cate Blanchett-starring juggernaut posed to either sweep at the Oscars or at least to make enough commotion to remind the public at large what cinema can be about. Among other things.
It has been noted before that Tár disguises itself as a biopic and that some viewers should be made aware of the fact that the protagonist of this story, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), together with everyone else for that matter, is completely made up. She is a fictitious composer, a manufactured prodigy, a made-up superstar who ascended to the primacy in the world of classical music. However, the movie rings true regardless of that fact. The filmmaker makes subtle decisions to reinforce a belief that what you are watching may have happened for real. That is, until he no longer does.
Thus, Tár drops the viewer into its world much in the same way you’d enter the world of classical music as an outsider – as a paying customer. The camera infiltrates this universe as a seemingly impartial observer, equally present as it is absent. We see Lydia Tár interviewed on stage, asked about her work, allowed to expound on her inspirations, prodded about her views on gender equality, feminism and opportunities for women such as herself to have a shot at becoming such a prominent figure one day.
We later see Lydia lecture to students, an encounter which also descends into conflict with an agitated student who refuses to play Bach because he was a white man. We hear Lydia authoritatively argue a case for separating the art from the artist and the perils of embarking unwittingly on a slippery slope of post-Marxist identitarian ideology which will one day come to bite these young activists on their backsides. She moves between her students like a tiger, while Field’s camera clinically documents the proceedings. We see Lydia interacting with her various collaborators, her partner, her child, her assistant. And out of this episodic vignettes Field assembles a portrait of a larger-than-life authority who is fully aware of her celebrity, the legacy she is building for future historians to admire, the power she wields, and the influence she exerts on the world around her. What she does not realize is that the world she thinks she lives in is a fantasy. And as this happens, we get to invade her headspace too, and partake in how her reality slowly unravels.
From the very beginning – in fact the movie starts with a piece of mobile phone footage of someone making comments about Tár – Field lets it be known that what he paints is an illusion, a portrait underpinned by subliminal anxiety. As he lets this fictitious biopic unfold in a matter-of-fact and rather detached manner, he introduces elements of chaos into the seemingly structured and impenetrable life of his protagonist. In a way, he allows the film to mimic Michael Haneke in how he builds a suggestive portrait of serene untouchability only to start chipping away at it and – little by little – precipitate its eventual catastrophic destruction, all of which works both within its own constraints as a story about a fall from grace and on a meta-textual level as a commentary about the world at large.
We observe as Tár’s life is invaded by foreign forces and how eventually she is incapable of keeping everything under control. Demons from her past emerge and her seemingly incontrovertible power withers away, as dark clouds of a brewing scandal gather overhead, and Tár’s own mental fortitude is put to the test. Blanchett’s acting range is given here the necessary latitude to allow the character to take command of the screen and truly envelop the movie, so much that the fact it is titled Tár makes complete sense – Cate Blanchett is the film. Although her co-stars Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant aren’t too far behind, Blanchett succeeds in taking complete ownership of the narrative, perhaps mimicking what her character would do, if she was in her position.
What Field and Blanchett manage to accomplish in this nuanced study on how persona is detached from the person and how absolute power corrupts absolutely is that the film as a whole serves as an equally layered commentary on the currently rampant cancel culture. In fact, they craft a narrative in which – depending on whichever way you might sway politically – the viewer might opt to choose sides in this cultural conflict. They might side with Tár and see her as a victim hounded by jealousy of others who want what she has. Some might side with her detractors and see her as an oppressive bully who deserves her comeuppance. And they very well may emerge from the movie having only reinforced their worldview. After all, humans have this fascinating ability to not only refuse to adjust their opinions when confronted with new evidence, but double down on their beliefs and adopt them as part of their identity. Which is what I believe Todd Field is commenting on.
You see, Lydia Tár is a liar. Her name is Linda. She is ashamed of where she came from. She probably left a trail of corpses behind her as she was traversing to the top of the world. She likely never cared about anything and anyone for longer than it was useful for her. We see her openly threaten a child at her daughter’s school. We are not blind to how she manipulates her co-workers, toys with their emotions and asserts herself at the expense of others. We know not only that she is far from perfect, but we can surmise she is an anti-hero.
However, equally we know what’s happening to her isn’t exactly fair. We are perfectly aware of which words she uttered were taken out of context, what she said and didn’t say and that some people in her direct vicinity had vested interests in taking her down. It is as though Field wanted to craft a position of cognitive dissonance for us to inhabit – a way for us to sympathize with Tar while denouncing her as a villain in the same breath.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Todd Field’s Tár is a masterpiece. It’s an artistically accomplished piece that cuts deep into our own psyche and upsets with these seemingly conflicting concepts held together by a mesmerizing turn from Cate Blanchett, one of the finest performers of her generation. This morality play hidden within a perfectly paced tale of anxiety, horror and abuse is a perfect reminder of why the world was in love with Field’s filmmaking fifteen years ago. He came out of hiding just in time to make a few choice comments on our current cultural woes in such a powerful and intellectually impervious way that you could feel the world shut up for a second after the credits rolled.
Tár is a perfect examination of our current zeitgeist that toys with the viewer just as much as it does with its characters. It is a phenomenal example of using the language of visual storytelling to craft a piece of elevated horror and anxiety-inducing claustrophobia tightening around the protagonist and her world. It is also a beautiful study on perspective, dynamics of abuse and a canonical tale of madness consuming an individual who thought herself immortal.
And if you’d like a tongue-in-cheek summation as well, Tár is an arthouse rendition of Whiplash told from the point of view of J.K. Simmons’ character. Only more accomplished and simply better.