Lydia Tár is the first ever female conductor of a major German orchestra, and is largely considered one of the greatest composers/conductors to ever do it. Her craft is impeccable and her knowledge is as vast as the respect her station commands. She’s not necessarily the loudest person in the room, but when she speaks up, everybody listens. When she offers advice on how to improve an orchestration, the advice is taken. When it comes to producing the finest orchestral performances and recordings, her word is law. But when it comes to navigating her personal and professional life…she’s her own worst enemy.
Todd Field’s latest is a masterful character study, showing both the light and dark sides of obsession, craft, and leadership. It’s a satire of the identity obsessed world we live in, as well as the tug-of-war that is class consciousness. It’s a depiction of a professional operating at the highest level of her ability, whose laser focus on personal gain is also her biggest downfall. To watch TÁR and expect clean morality, however, is a fool’s errand. Lydia Tár’s way of moving through the world is a lot of things, both good and bad, but what emerges over nearly three hours is something so rare in movies with big moral concerns: Lydia Tár, flawless artist, is a human being.
The film opens during a Q&A session in which real world journalist Adam Gopnik lists Lydia Tár’s incredible achievements. She’s an EGOT, she’s on the cusp finishing the gargantuan task of recording of all of Mahler’s symphonies. She rejects the notion that she received any resistance to success on account of her gender, and she has very little tolerance for any suggestion that anything outside of the art itself matters. Early on in the film, when one of her students suggests that as a BIPOC pansexual gender-non-conformant, they can’t jibe with the work of Bach, Lydia delivers a pretty firm and insensitive takedown of what she sees as an artistic closed-mindedness. The student exits the classroom, but not without calling the professor a “fucking bitch.”
Lydia lets such things roll off her back, shielded mainly by talent, but also by her membership in a financially privileged class. There’s no denying her skills, so who can say she’s wrong in the realm of music? What can really be taken away from her? The film doesn’t pick sides in this moment, being as frank about Lydia Tár’s insensitivity as it is with her student’s intellectual incuriosity. If Lydia Tár’s privilege is an unfair shield, so is her student’s identity markers.
And it’s through this non-judgmental lens that writer/director Todd Field has chosen to tell this story. What I mention in the previous paragraph is indicative of just one of many themes being explored in the film — a sort of “warts and all” approach to so many murky ethical regions of artistic expression, as well as the human toll creativity often takes. It’s easy to look at Lydia Tár and find yourself in absolute awe of her staggering genius (which is more than helped along by Cate Blanchett’s, well, staggering genius) — unable to view her through any lens but that of consumption of her art, but the narrative of TÁR uses an insanely strong supporting cast to dissolve the starry eyes through which we in the audience may be inclined to receive this monumentally talented woman. By surrounding her with fully-fleshed out human beings, each of whom have a different set of stars in their own eyes, we too may be able to demystify the legend that stands before us.
Lydia’s assistant (Noémie Merlant) is rather tight with her employer, seemingly more so than Lydia’s spouse (Nina Hoss, at risk of stealing the whole film from Blanchett), a talented musician in her own right. The two have a child that they are devoted to, albeit at a different pace. This connected web of motivations and desires between these three women is always in flux, but it’s Lydia herself who seems to be the wild card. Her love feels almost robotic and perfunctory, in stark contrast to her musical passion. And when a new musician (Sophie Kauer) finds her way into the orchestra, we are made to wonder if anyone truly knows who Lydia is, or what she is capable of as a manipulator of emotions. She’s a hell of a conductor and a composer, but her skills as a puppet master reach beyond the sheet music.
Field is not just an adept weaver of thematics, but a skilled cinematic technician, making a near three hour picture fly by like a symphony of sound and image. When you’re shooting Cate Blanchett, who is doing her very own take on the Daniel Plainview type, you run the risk of being steamrolled by your own creation. But Field is no Dr. Frankenstein, and he has kept his monster in its gorgeous cage.
It’s a lot of movie, ultimately as unsettling as it is entertaining. A mix of stark drama, dark humor, and flawless craft, all in service of a film that highlights the flaws inherent to humanity — inherent to even the best of us, while also asking with a heavy hand by what metric “the best of us” can even be quantified.
Best not to say too much more, for reasons of both avoiding spoilers and not feeling qualified after just a single viewing of this sumptuous meal of a film. But even without the multiple viewings this material so duly requires, I can confidently say that it’s one of the best movies I have ever seen. Absolute perfection. I’ve been punched in the face.
Note: I couldn’t find a way to include this in the body of the review, so I’ll just shout out Hildur Guônadóttir, whose soundscape for this film could potentially earn her another Oscar. Bonus points for being referenced in-film as well! Love to see it.
Directed by Todd Field
Written by Todd Field
Starring Cate Blanchett, Noemie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer
Rated R, 158 glorious minutes