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When we first meet her, conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has just taken her seat at the top of our culture. More literally, it’s a seat onstage next to Adam Gopnik for her very own ticketed conversation at the New Yorker Festival. Gopnik, whose name is never mentioned (you’re just supposed to know), introduces the cultural giant by reading a litany of her accomplishments in the classical music world, most of which will mean nothing to general audiences. Good thing he also mentions she is an EGOT winner. Lydia has transcended her little corner of the world to become a cultural behemoth. It doesn’t take an expert to see she has a long way to fall.
TÁR is the long-awaited return to filmmaking for director Todd Field, who earned Oscar nominations for his 2001 debut feature, In the Bedroom, and begrudging, horrified respect for his 2006 gothic suburban fable, Little Children. His work is characterized by a profound patience. It’s not just that he takes a long time between projects. Like a conductor himself, he orchestrates within each film a roiling ocean of tension, sporting a slow, rising surge that, in the end, overwhelms his anxious protagonists. You can see why he feels a kinship with Lydia (TÁR is his first solo writing credit). To Gopnik, she defines her conductor role as a manipulator of time: starting it, keeping it, and even occasionally, as if by magic, stopping it.
Time stops for Lydia when allegations of sexual misconduct begin to leak out, just as she is on the verge of completing a major artistic triumph. Field proves himself the perfect filmmaker to take on “cancel culture”; with patience, he probes deeply at the human characteristics behind Lydia’s misconduct instead of offering shallow assertions that would win him plaudits from his cultural base. He begins the film with a series of slow, long takes, like the one in which Lydia publicly humiliates a student who suggests he’s not interested in white men composers; her defense of the separation between art and artist is a warning flag, but Field’s patience—his willingness to reflect the rhythms of life—gently steers us out of our judgmental zones.
It’s a long time before anything really happens in TÁR, and the revelations of Lydia’s indiscretions come not with a lightning bolt but with a slow, rolling thundercloud. An ex-assistant conductor she had a dalliance with is threatening to go public; her new assistant (Noémie Merlant), who Lydia is considering passing over for a more important job, knows where the bodies are buried. Lydia’s wife (Nina Hoss) knows what’s coming and is slowly drawing away. There is no match that sets Lydia’s world aflame, just a banal reaping of what she has sowed. In the hands of any other filmmaker, it would be inert, but Field’s professionalism is his triumph. He lets Lydia’s story unfold like a wicked flower, only coming to full hideous bloom in the final third. Eventually, time speeds up. He employs juxtaposition and jarring cuts to convey the disruption of Lydia’s carefully constructed world.
Considering its slow pace and lengthy run time—two hours and 38 minutes is a major commitment—the film’s refusal to engage in emotional pyrotechnics will surely leave some viewers checking their watch. But its restraint is a feature, not a bug. TÁR withholds emotional catharsis so that we can observe its central character more clearly. It helps that she’s a woman, as watching a man abuse his power would inspire a more Pavlovian response in audiences. Lydia is a monster—the film’s title is clearly meant to evoke “tar and feathers,” the antiquated way of driving wrongdoers from a community, but it also feels akin with Dracula or Frankenstein—and Blanchett, in her one of her finest performances, expertly withholds her charm and beauty; she refuses to smile for the camera, drawing us closer by holding back her easy humanity. Field keeps her in bland, naturalistic light, ably captured by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, so that she seems to blend into her environment. On the exceedingly rare occasion when her emotion bursts forth, it’s like the shark in Jaws: cold, gray, and terrifying.
So why do we watch? Although its conventional fall-and-rise trajectory means TÁR is never quite as revelatory as it wants to be, it accomplishes the difficult task of allowing the viewer space to simply observe a person falling apart, rather than root for their success or failure. These stories are tricky. Watching a wrongdoer receive their comeuppance can provide easy answers, but offering them too much sympathy doesn’t accomplish much either. TÁR finds a new way, keeping a smart distance from its cancellable protagonist’s inner world, reflecting back to us our own contradictory feelings about power and fame. In the end, it’s a double portrait of a monster and the mad audience that created her.
TÁR opened in select D.C. theaters on Oct. 7, and opens nationwide on Oct. 28.