Star Rating:


Director: Todd Field

Actors: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss

Release Date: Friday 13th January 2023

Genre(s): Drama, Music

Running time: 158 minutes

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is widely considered one of the greatest living composers-conductors and the first-ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. She splits her time between New York and Berlin, but also between preparing for the performance of Mahler's 5th Symphony, her own compositions, and the complex web of relationships with her wife (Nina Hoss), her attentive and ever-present assistant/protege (Noémie Merlant), her business partner (Mark Strong) and a young cellist (Sophie Kauer). However, her carefully constructed life begins to unravel when a previous member of her orchestra (Sylvia Flote) emerges and reveals Tár's sinister side...

'Tár' opens with a fawning introduction and equally fawning interview with real-life journalist Adam Gopnik and Lydia Tár after which we're shown a montage of Tár's other works and interviews. She does a podcast interview for 'Here's The Thing with Alec Baldwin', she's on the cover of glossy magazines, and she walks in and out of gleaming cars with sunglasses on and an impassive look on her face. Everything we see about Lydia Tár suggests a veneer of icy calm, cool and controlled, betraying absolutely nothing remotely close to human. Not even when she arrives at her dead-tech, post-modernistic apartment in Berlin with her wife in tears from a panic attack. She calmly scoops her up in her arms, hugs her gently, and gets on with her business.

Writer-director Todd Field immediately puts us into this world and makes us abundantly aware of the power structures at play. Lydia Tár is on top, everyone else gets trampled underneath. Whenever she utters a word in front of an audience of a hundred or two, Blanchett's character is making a calculation and designing her words to evoke something. There's a long-take scene in which the composer-conductor berates a student for dismissing the work of classical composers such as Bach in a way that, initially anyway, seems like dunking on cancel culture and identity politics. Yet, like everything in 'Tár', it's set up with a pay-off further down the line like all good horror movies. In 'Tár', the dynamic and the story aren't necessarily about the world of classical music, or obsessions, or even compromising relationships. It's about power, who holds it, who wields it, and who does what with it.

It makes sense to set a story like this, which deals exclusively with power and control, in the world of classical music. For one, conductors stand over an orchestra and have a very overt visual cue of power. Yet, 'Tár' could have easily been set in the world of filmmaking, finance, art, or anywhere else - yet classical music provides another element to 'Tár' and that's artifice. Lydia Tár utilises deception again and again to get her way. She gaslights people constantly, she deploys whispers and rumours like webs, and in one key scene towards the end of the movie, it is revealed that she herself is a creature of pretence.

To say that Blanchett is monstrously good in this is an understatement. From start to finish, she dominates the screen. She sucks in all of the air in 'Tár', leaving the audience breathless in her presence. Blanchett's performance balances her utter tyranny with a kind of contemptible pity towards the end. Pity isn't even the right word. It's more that the mechanisms and the armour that gave her that power have been stripped away, and a black-hearted wretch is all that remains. She does this all without ever once giving into the obvious choices. Blanchett never once chews the scenery, nor does she overplay anything. There's only one moment when she snaps, and it's played beautifully and closes out a chapter of 'Tár' with style.

It's the downfall that makes 'Tár' so fascinating to watch, not because we want to see Blanchett's character brought low, but rather that it's just so rare to see inside the mind and workings of these kinds of awful people. So often is the case nowadays that stories of power, abused or otherwise, are either told by looking up at it from impotence or looking down at it from piety. In 'Tár', writer-director Todd Field makes us look straight at its crooked, fiendish visage - that it's hidden behind Cate Blanchett's impassive face is irrelevant. 'Tár' is a monster movie. She doesn't destroy buildings, and she isn't imbued with unholy powers, but she is a juggernaut who crushes people in her path and torments anyone who opposes her.

'Tár' loses itself in its ending, possibly because it's never as good as you think it's going to be. Unlike in other monster movies, she's not thrown off the side of the Empire State Building, no stake goes flying through her heart, and no villagers come to set her house on fire. Instead, she skulks away and is given no further credence or thought. The ending feels so anti-climactic that all of the strands and the themes never coalesce.

Maybe that's the point, that it's not supposed to, but still and all, 'Tár' suffers for it as it's easily going to be one of the best movies of the new year.