Early in Todd Fields’ Tár, Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett) — a world renowned conductor; the rare maestro to cross over into something approaching mainstream recognition, with the money, orchestral appointments, sycophants, and New Yorker coverage to prove it — makes a decision. She is at the height of her career. She has already toured the circuit of major orchestras in America and beyond (her current gig is with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), already hit EGOT status, already accomplished enough, lived enough, to merit a major autobiography, to be titled Tár on Tár. (It is already being hailed as an instant classic.) She was once a protégé of the great Leonard Bernstein, and takes after him in one especially important way: a love for Gustav Mahler, the late romantic composer whose titanic run of symphonies is one of the Mount Rushmores of the classical repertoire, particularly for a star conductor with the standing to produce the full run under the auspices of a single, world class orchestra. It’s this last part, the full run with a single orchestra, that Tár has not accomplished — yet. She is nearly there. She is only one symphony away, having saved the most momentous for last: Mahler’s Fifth.
But she needs an image for the cover. Tár’s Mahler run is going to be released as a digital box set by Deutsche-Grammophon, the prestigious label whose album covers are surely among the most iconic, recognizable images in classical music, powerful assertions of musicians — conductors and soloists and small ensembles — as larger-than-life auteurs, with faces and names on par with the legendary composers that they’re playing. The occasion of a career-capping Mahler set calls for a statement piece. Tár’s instinct, in designing that image, is to look to the past.
The first real scene of Tár is a charismatic and revealing interview with the writer Adam Gopnik, on the stage of the annual New Yorker festival. Cut into that scene, appearing wordlessly onscreen as Gopnik reads out Tár’s long biographical intro, is another, equally telling introduction to this complicated woman. It proceeds as a series of glimpses into who Tár is, by way of showing us who she is trying to be. Tár scattering her prized collection of Deutsche-Grammophon vinyls on the floor of her study, her Bernsteins and Herbert Von Karajans and Claudio Abbados, lining them up end to end into a distinctly prestigious vision of her profession’s past. Toeing her way among these legendary faces with her bare foot, in search of an image — the image of a Great Man — to emulate; taking care not to trample their likenesses on the one hand while almost literally standing on the shoulders of these giants on the other. Making her choices (an Abbado recording of Mahler 5 and a Bernstein recording of Mahler 9, both classics, both collaborations with the Berlin Philharmonic), and having her devoted assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) present the vinyl sleeve to a tailor, who must now fashion Tár a mix of Bernstein’s blazered turtleneck and Abbado’s simple, serious, workmanlike blue shirt for her own cover. Donning her new costume, with its masculine femininity. Scowling with pride into a mirror during her fitting, like someone accepting her place in a royal succession.
All of this flashes by in minutes. Only later, nearly an hour into the movie, are we encouraged to see the gravity of this process and all that it revealed to us. The time will come for Tár to finally take that cover image — you’d be reasonable to assume she already had, what with all the primping and preparation — and the photographer will present her an array of possible options, most of them young-looking, stylish women. We’re meant to realize that what we saw at the start of the film was evidence of Tár thinking far ahead: that she conceptualized, styled, and tailored her cover image — her legacy — long before anyone had even asked. We’re meant to notice the difference between what the photographer presents as options for how to proceed, the various women in dresses and concert attire, and the options Tár has laid out for herself — all of them men.
This isn’t so simple as a lesson on internalized misogyny. We’re talking about a gay woman who favors a masculine dress style in her everyday life, who proudly wears the pants in her partnership, yet also comes armed with a rejoinder about the real history of women conductors, figures who paved the way, lest anyone begin to think she totally lacks any awareness of a lineage beyond men. (Whether Tár sincerely looks up to these women in a directly inspired way is a separate question.) The photographer’s options weren’t exactly a realistic way forward in the first place. Smiling women are hardly a match for Tár’s more severe aesthetic, her alluring, imposing self-seriousness. Those women are, among other things, too lacking in visible ego — too unlike the ancestry of star conductors that Tár has fashioned for herself, with their hard jaws and stern faces readymade to be carved into marble busts. This is the kind of woman who, upon learning that her adopted daughter, Petra, has been getting bullied at school, introduces herself to that bully with, “I am Petra’s father” — a claim that’s meant, one suspects, to add a certain urgency, imminent danger, to the threat that follows. Tár does not identify as a man. But she certainly enjoys the freedom to don male authority.
Tár is a movie about a particular brand of ego, one largely associated with men but, as some of the sniveling male side characters in Tár demonstrate, hardly the station of every man. It’s difficult to pin this movie down as a study of any one idea, however, because for all the ways that Fields has written a sturdy, straightforward drama about a problematic artist’s fast track to an imminent downfall, he’s also found ways to stitch a rapid succession of related ideas — about the white maleness of the classical canon (which Tár does not take for granted as a problem, exactly), generational attitudes towards art, cancel culture, and the like, and on and on. Its motivating concern seems to be that sticky problem of how and whether to separate the art from the artist — a problem energetically dramatized early on, when Tár visits a Juilliard class and has a dispute with a young, queer, nonwhite conductor in training who says he cannot get into Bach because of the canonical composer’s “misogynistic” lifestyle. Tár, taking her time to chew the student out and make an example of him, accusing him of putting Bach on trial by way of social media-driven moral righteousness, attempts to encourage a faith in Bach’s work that ought to outlast the fact that Bach had 20 children (half of whom did not live to adulthood, which surprisingly goes unmentioned). It’s a long, captivating scene in a movie largely predicated on such scenes, and on Blanchett’s unmatched ability to make Tár’s cruelty so charismatic, owning the room, owning the camera, bending the scene to her will. The immediate result is the student calling Tár a bitch and storming out. But this almost feels like a foregone conclusion. It had long ceased to be a conversation about changing a student’s mind. Tár sets out to prove a point, and she does.
The problem is that Tár would prefer for artists not to be reduced to their personal indiscretions — because she has plenty of her own. That doesn’t make her belief in the value of art contra moral policing any less genuine — but can’t this argument do double duty? It’s a useful way to cover her own ass, until she no longer can. The backbone of Tár is an intensive look at what the classical superstar’s predilection for navigating the world like a Great Man means for her relationships to women — among them her partner, Sharon (the legendary Nina Hoss), who’s Berlin’s concertmaster, and Francesca, who hopes to that this apprenticeship will lead to a recommendation for a conducting position so that she can start her own career. Rather than reducing Tár to explicit sexual indiscretions, Fields opts for the thornier, more difficult to pinpoint approach of giving us a powerful woman who takes advantage of peoples’ affections, does favors here and there and makes promises, particularly for young women on the rise, in the most banal, quietly damaging way. You don’t need to be told what happens when an exciting new woman, a young cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer), arrives on the block and catches Tár’s eye — about the fear it strikes in Tár’s other women, of being swapped in for this newer model. More unexpected are the intrusions of other women — a former, “troubled” protégé whose career Tár tanked after things went south, for example. And maybe others.
That “maybe” is because Fields has made Tár a somewhat mysterious endeavor. Someone — maybe someones — is working to undo Tár from the inside. We see the computer screen of someone editing Tár’s Wikipedia page, but we don’t know who. A livestream from within Tár’s hotel room in New York is held by an unidentified hand, typing out gibes about the conductor to some equally unknown person. Someone turns on the metronome in Tár’s study one night. Someone else — this time a person we know — sets her loose on a cat and mouse game in an old building complex in Berlin, to horrifying results that may or may not have been intended. At one point, Tár goes on a jog through a park and hears a woman screaming for her life in the distance. She never finds the woman. It’s enough to drive a person mad.
The past is catching up with Tár. Or, more accurately, she’s being subjected to the present: She’s gotten away with things throughout her career that she shouldn’t have. How bad they are, how worthy they are of condemnation, how much Tár deserves what comes to her in this film — these prove subjective. Fields is not in it for the easy schadenfreude, either way. Nor is Blanchett, who, more than anything else at play, is the essence of what makes Tár work. It’s a masterful, full-bodied performance — even her way with the angularity of her face and the camera feels thought-through — and even more impressively, it’s great, delicious fun. Blanchett accomplishes the primary and most immediate task of convincing us that Tár is, indeed, worth all the fuss — that she is a genius of a kind and also the kind of unabashed top that can lead femmes to their emotional peril, that her way of sculpting time through the air with her hands as she conducts has genuine authority, that her insights into music are bone-deep, that she has the wit, intelligence, and importantly, the furtiveness and hard-to-place sexual charisma to draw the flies like honey, to everyone’s severe detriment. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Tár is that it is far more than a mere vehicle for one showboating performance. And even if it were, with a performance like this, who would mind?