“Time is the thing. Time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me. I start the clock.”
The new movie “Tár” introduces us to its namesake and protagonist, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the formidably talented head conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, in her own words. In the first of the film’s many stunning single-shot sequences, we play audience to Tár’s interview with the New Yorker, where she flaunts her genius in a way that feels more like a monologue than a dialogue. This presentation is fitting: Tár lives in her own corrupting headspace, that of a genius who has been publicly lifted to heights where accountability seems unobtainable. Self-absorption fuels her mastery of her craft and fixes her as the center of the solar system she inhabits.
Her success is earned, but it also places her in an elite role where ethical norms are no longer upheld. The illusory shield of power ultimately leads to the shattering of the artist being shielded.
When Tár defines her work as a conductor, she is the master of time, the thread that binds the music itself. Her sense of control is paramount to her success: she is in control during the entirety of the New Yorker interview; she teaches a master class at Juilliard where she is in control of the lens through which her students see music and the art of conducting; she is in control of her marriage to her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss, a subtle and fierce gem); she is in control of those in her professional orbit, to an alarming degree. She wears this power like a tailor-made suit, effortlessly navigating her daily life and manipulating outcomes to fit her needs and vision.
Tár’s demise, unsurprisingly, comes from her complacency with this power, as she never imagines that it is anything but permanent.
What sets “Tár” apart from other films seeking to explore the abuse of power is the starkly neutral gaze of the film toward its lead, never villainizing or victimizing its complicated maestro. The film offers us an unflinching gaze at every part of her: her actions, her reactions and the divide between her confident public persona and her private paranoia. It allows us insight into a psyche battling the demons of its behavior, but we are never quite sure whether Tár is consumed by guilt or desperate not to get caught. Can both coexist? If it is the former, should she be forgiven, and should her work as an artist continue to stand alone? Or, if it’s the latter, should she be, for lack of a better word, canceled?
The film never asks easy questions, and, like Tár expresses earlier in the film, trying to persuade a student to recognize the enduring significance of Bach, the question should be favored over the answer. One always listens more intently to the question, she claims, and the film makes a case for this, holding us rapt for nearly three hours by asking questions that do not have simple or even right answers.
Can someone’s genius be so loud that it drowns out any fears (or allegations) surrounding it? Should power be held by someone who can use it to propel our culture forward, even if they also use it for selfish purposes? How much do we choose not to see in the figures we admire most, and does this willful ignorance enable corruption? Are we guilty too, if that’s the case?
The questions posed in the film branch off infinitely on these themes, but they eventually arrive at the same point: The one undeniable thing about Tár is her genius. Her innocence, ethics and reputation are all shadowed by a dark cloud of doubt, but her genius is a sterling thing, evident in quiet moments (mundane sounds becoming tools for masterful compositions in Tár’s hands), as well as her moments of pure performance where her bright light shines blindingly. The war we end up waging with ourselves as an audience to Tár’s narrative is a consequence of being awed by her elegance and mastery, only to be disturbed by her history and predatory tendencies as the film slowly burns. The climax is less of an explosion and more of an extinguishing of a flame by the fingers of an unknown person who saw the danger in its potential to burn down entire forests. How conflicting to be relieved by this extinguishing, only to remember the flame and miss its fire.
This is Todd Field’s first feature since 2006’s “Little Children” and a testament to the virtue of patience. The years between these two films have borne witness to the #MeToo movement and the crumbling of many empires built on the suffering of others. While brimming with intelligence, his film is an unsentimental piece that often leaves us to draw our own conclusions about what society gets right and wrong when addressing professional misconduct.
Blanchett, in an Oscar-worthy turn as the king with an iron grip of the crown, is in virtually every frame of the film and manages to be relentlessly compelling nonetheless. Rarely are women given opportunities to carry an entire story on screen, and, oftentimes, when it’s done, the films escape the Academy’s attention (prime examples over the last decade being Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” snubbed despite the powerhouse performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Florence Pugh, respectively). If Blanchett escapes a similar fate, she may well be on her way to her third Oscar win, following her statuettes for “The Aviator” and “Blue Jasmine,” the latter being an example, alongside 2006’s often overlooked gem, “Notes on a Scandal,” of her prowess portraying women reeling from the acute personal loss of self in the aftermath of the death of reputation.
While the film poses many compelling and unanswerable questions, there is only one that has a clear answer: Should you watch it? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. Field’s gift to us is a showcase for one of our greatest living actor’s many talents, and a brave examination of the complexity of modern power dynamics, wrapped in a hauntingly beautiful score by Hildur Guðnadóttir.
“Tár” premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, where Blanchett took home the Coppa Volpi award for best actress, and is now playing nationwide.
Johannes Saca is a writer living in Seattle. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JohannesSaca.
Header illustration by Henry Behrens; original image courtesy of Focus Features.
Read more of the Nov. 9-15, 2022 issue.