Todd Field’s new movie, Tar, opens with a scene that should feel inherently uncinematic: an onstage Q&A. The conversation, between Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett) and Adam Gopnik (gamely playing himself), is the kind of hoity-toity event that’d be a coveted ticket for a certain highbrow milieu. Tar is the preeminent conductor of her generation. She leads the Berlin Philharmonic and has a list of accomplishments that Gopnik could rattle off for at least an hour. (Among other things, she has an EGOT!) But why start her story in staid territory, via a back-and-forth on classical music that mostly feels like a big pat on the back for a fictional character the viewer has just met?
For two reasons, both of which underline why Field’s movie is such a biting accomplishment. The first is to see Blanchett in her element, keeping an audience hanging on every word as her character ruminates on the difficulties of her vocation and the legacy of legends such as Leonard Bernstein. The second is to establish the tone of Tár’s tightly wound world, in which she’s shuttled from place to place in luxury while everyone orbits around her, eager for just a puff of her genius to waft their way. Over the course of 158 minutes, cracks start to emerge in that hermetic universe until it finally comes apart. Field charts Tar’s decline with devastating relish.
Tár’s “cancellation” (which is simply the easiest way to describe what happens to her reputation in the film) has its specifics, but Field seems most interested in the elemental process of watching someone with such power and poise veer out of control. The unraveling of Tár begins with just a few whispers before spiraling in unpredictable directions. Field isn’t exactly rooting for her downfall, and neither was I; instead, he’s depicting the way such scandals inspire rubbernecking from all walks of life.
In the first act, Tar is proud. A protege of Bernstein’s, she’s a professed believer in his mantra that classical music should be accessible to the people, not remote or academic. But an early scene sees her reading a group of students with withering superiority. She takes particular delight in ripping apart an aspiring conductor who dares to question Bach’s place in the pantheon. Tar has intellectual heft, and watching her deploy it is breathtaking. Blanchett pours equal parts charisma and intimidation into her career-best performance.
Tár’s relationship with her colleagues and family is only slightly more even-keeled. Her smart but introverted assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), carefully flits around her at events, making sure not to inspire her fury. Her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), a first-chair violinist in the orchestra, possesses near-infinite patience for every mood swing, serving as both a reassuring soldier and an emotional punching bag. The couple have an adopted daughter named Petra (Mila Bogojevic); Tár’s relationship with her seems to mostly revolve around occasional chats in the car on the way to school, though one of the earliest signs of Tár’s growing detachment from common sense is when she threatens Petra’s classmate and bully with a somber “I’ll get you .” (If Cate Blanchett had said that to me on the playground when I was 6 years old, I’d have melted on the spot.)
Gradually, the film makes clear that a prior mentorship between Tár and a trainee conductor devolved into something inappropriate, and Tár’s fear of those details becoming public starts to creep onto the edges of every scene. Field’s first two films, In the Bedroom and LittleChildren, both delivered a slow drip of dread, suffusing mundane conversations and day-to-day human interactions with existential panic. In the 16 years since he last released a movie, Field’s dexterity in depicting dismay and worry has only increased. He turns Tár’s splendid modernist home into a harsh, loveless mausoleum and makes an opulent Berlin concert hall feel like a brightly lit courtroom—the stage for a tribunal from which she cannot escape.
Field played the furtive piano player Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut and had close ties to Stanley Kubrick near the end of his career, and Tar is worthy of comparison to that great master’s work. Every visual composition is meticulously arranged, and every surreal twist of imagery feels nuanced and earned. But most important, the world around Tár seems real and tangible, so when it slips into chaos, the viewer becomes as overwhelmed as the protagonist. Field understands that for the stakes of this insular story of one fictional celebrity’s reputation to matter, Tár’s manifold scandals can’t be easy to evaluate. She’s not a clear-cut monster or a martyr being railroaded by a system of prudes. Blanchett and Field make her as complicated as the art she loves and respects, even as love and respect become the emotions she struggles most to wield and receive.