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Film Review: Tár reveals the psychological drama simmering behind the surface of fame

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's TÁR, a Focus Features release.
Courtesy of Focus Features
Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's TÁR, a Focus Features release.

Early in Todd Field’s new movie ‘Tár’, a fictional celebrated orchestra conductor, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), sits for an onstage interview with Adam Gopnik, an actual writer for The New Yorker.Tár is at the top of her career and her conversation with Gopnik hovers between brilliant and BS.

She’s sure of herself. It’s in gestures suggesting that she owns the place — whatever place that might be. The character is a tremendous performance by Cate Blanchett, who makes Tár virtually float above her world, like a goddess, at least in her own mind — and for a while — in the minds of a lot of people in her world of classical music.

You can’t type her. She’s a shifting mix of arrogant, brilliant, domineering, supportive and abusive. At a master class with students at the famed Julliard School of Music, a young man says he’s ‘Just not into Bach.’Tár is instantly put off by what she sees as his musical ignorance and also by his dismissive, mealy-mouthed language. She pushes the student to explain, and when he adds that “white, male, cis composers” are just not “his thing.” She launches into him about his narrow judgments.

“But you see, the problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic, epistemic dissident is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours,” says Cate Blanchett’s Tár.

Her blunt treatment of the student will come back to bite her.

But the character’s condemnation of cancel culture is only part of the movie. You might reduce the film to the cliché of a brilliant but arrogant musician who falls from a great height, but that’s not the half of it.

Tár, the character has so many facets — the film can barely contain her. She’s a woman in a profession that men have dominated for centuries. She identifies herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” whatever that means.

She’s a marvelous, energetic conductor who apparently is a genius at handling an orchestra and interpreting music, and she’s manipulative, dishonest, cruel to people who’ve trusted her, ambitious and self-serving.

There are hints of sexual exploitation — so Tár is pretty much what we hope women breaking into male-controlled fields will not be.

Director/writer Todd Field has not created an easy melodrama of a woman struggling to make it in the unfair-to-women world of music; the picture gives a portrait of someone who’s made it and who may be brilliant but is neither nice nor admirable. She’s a bully.

Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister set ‘Tár’ in a world, like Tár, so crisp, it’s forbidding. Interiors are sparse with sharp lines and little relief from curves or plants or anything soft.

If someone has a messy office, it’s a good bet he’ll get fired. In one of the few outdoor scenes, Tár tells a young girl in a schoolyard that if she messes with Tár’s daughter again, she’ll get her. No relaxation there. For exercise, Tár works out on a heavy punching bag.

And she’s fascinating. Filmmaker Todd Field has made the character’s identity and all the unyielding social attitudes we tend to bring to movies in recent years nearly irrelevant.

The social world may matter, and viewers may well bring current questions of identity and approved behavior to their viewing of the movie, but the film ‘Tár’ has a kind of resistant purity.

The film demands that people see this one character as herself, not as a representative of anything. Just herself, along with the questions that arise from watching, in action, a mesmerizing, brilliant and hard person.

And you have to wonder about what it takes to get an entire orchestra to play something like Mahler’s 5th Symphony so beautifully that it makes us realize we have hearts.

And what a name the film gives her — Tár.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.