The Cate Blanchett-Starring ‘TÁR’ Offers a Slow, Subtle Discourse on Power Structures
Todd Field’s leisurely TÁR — his first feature in 16 years — is a spectacularly subtle film. Set in the world of classical music, the ambitious story touches on many things: the seduction of power and the traps of power structures, personal desires in the public arena, the capricious messiness of human behavior, the misinformed snap judgements of social media, the human toll of cancel culture.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a former protégé of Leonard Bernstein, is the chief conductor of a major German orchestra, and the opening scene sets us right into the middle of its rarefied milieu. Tár is being interviewed by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (played by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik) onstage, and the level of classical music minutiae may be lost on much of the audience, but what won’t be is the furious intelligence and commitment of Blanchett’s performance here.
Once we settle in to the atmosphere, we’re immersed into the day-to-day of operating an enormous orchestra, its internal catfighting and political gamesmanship, the casual cruelty of ambition, the isolation and exultation of genius. As a guest professor at Julliard, Tár challenges the assumptions of a BIPOC student with a deaf spot to Bach (it does not end well — the student storms out of the lecture hall after calling Tár a bitch). She’s dismissive of Krista Taylor, a young musician seeking a series of references for different orchestras, and whom, we learn in due time, may have had a dalliance with the conductor (one in a long line of what a social media commentator calls “fresh meat”). She shares living arrangements in Berlin with her long-time partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their adopted daughter, Petra, and there’s a new cellist, Olga (Sophia Kauer), who has caught the great conductor’s fancy.
It’s a rich tapestry, even though for long stretches of the film it might appear that not much is happening. How does the Julliard class relate to the domestic drama to the stage interview to the daily banalities of orchestral bureaucracy, auditions, rehearsals, petty infighting? Why should we care? Blanchett is a magnetic performer, but the character is difficult, combative, prickly, egocentric (and also alluring, seductive, gentle, matriarchal). She’s a full-fledged human being, warts and all, and Field and his star never comment on the levels of her behavior. When Tár’s life spirals out of control in the face of online accusations (and a video of that Julliard class, which we, the audience, know has been doctored), Field leaves it up to us to decide if justice is served.
“I started writing this at the very beginning of the pandemic in March 2020,” Field has said. “Like everybody else, I was dressed in Hazmat; I was buying three weeks’ worth of groceries, going to 20 stores, and looking for toilet paper. I live in a multi-generational household where we were all, by necessity — because we couldn’t have any caretakers or whatever for older family members — we were all taking care of each other. We were all on top of each other, just like everyone else. And the idea of sitting down and spending your attention writing anything took on a very different weight. I felt like if I was going to write something, I wanted to write something that addressed some kind of primary questions that I’ve been having for a few years.
“And one of those things I’ve been thinking about a lot was power and about how mutable power is, and how power structures work, and what was available to me in terms of being able to talk about power in a very transparent way, and others with a limited set of facts.
“When is conversation or rhetoric dangerous? When is it dangerous to try to step into other people’s shoes who you’re absolutely sure you don’t agree with, to see if there’s common ground? To see if there’s something to where the conversation could have another dimension.
“And I didn’t have any answers to any of those things, and I don’t think a lot of people did. I think a lot of people shared this frustration, which is, how do we talk about these things?”
TÁR doesn’t try — by design — to answer Field’s questions. My guess is that there will be a portion of the audience, so used to being told exactly what to think and feel, that will be frustrated and dismissive of what’s before them (in the ugly online world there’d be plenty of tweets along the lines of “the bitch got what she deserved”). Still others will revel in the layers of discourse the film will no doubt provoke. What is never in question is Cate Blanchett’s prodigious feat here. On-screen, Blanchett plays the conductor. With Field guiding her, she’s the entire, immeasurable orchestra.