Lydia Tár is a once-in-a-generation character.
The realization comes within roughly 15 minutes of watching TÁR, Todd Field’s film about a globally-renowned orchestral conductor at the height of her powers. Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett, is being interviewed live for a New Yorker article about her illustrious career. Tár gives her answers with a breezy intelligence and confidence that reflects her well-honed expertise. She’s playful and seemingly self-aware but not unserious. However, there is the slightest hint of practice within her authoritative aura. It makes sense: she explains that the rehearsal is where she gains the most knowledge. This rehearsal is more about preservation than education, though. With Tár, you sense that she is deliberately holding back to prevent unleashing a catastrophic storm on everything she holds dear, mainly herself.
Catastrophe does come for Lydia Tár through allegations of inappropriate conduct that emerge amidst a book tour and a performance with the Berlin Orchestra. The death by suicide of a former colleague slowly creeps into Tár’s orbit and reshapes her life and career. She has blurred professional and personal lines with her immense power, like with her marriage to Shannon (Nina Hoss), the orchestra’s concertmaster. She has also circumvented ethics to advance her goals or satiate her interest in young women musicians. Tár has played fast and loose with her colleagues’ futures, and even threatened a child threatening her daughter. However, are her actions those of a nefarious, cruel sexual predator or a reckless but relatively-harmless target?
TÁR doesn’t fully clarify the reality or extent of her misconduct (although smoke certainly exists). However, that is largely beside the point. The film is interested in exploring the cult of personality, specifically how the associated mythmaking is equivalent to constructing a house of cards. As we see in the New Yorker interview, Tár is an absorbing presence, someone you intimately want to know, as does everyone else in the film. She is keenly aware of her power and has used it to her advantage. With no legitimate challenges to her reign, Tár embraces more manipulative and abusive behaviors. She doesn’t realize how her behavior isolates her and leaves her vulnerable to her shockingly swift and sudden fall from grace, until it’s too late. It is evident and inevitable to everyone except her. (Although her subconscious seems to get the hint.)
Lydia Tár’s magnificence and tumult make for a wildly compelling character study. Todd Field does little to distract us from Tár in her natural environment. He captures his extraordinary subject with a straightforward approach, letting her lead him as she does her orchestra. He doesn’t hide or obscure her intentions or outwardly villainize her. As her book Tár on Tár suggests, Field lets Tár’s actions and choices speak for themselves. Remarkably, as matter-of-fact and cold as Field’s direction can feel, TÁR never loses momentum. Despite its 158-minute runtime, the film’s deep focus never renders a dull moment. It helps to have a character whose brilliance, and the underscored threat of its ruin, rivals Margo Channing in All About Eve. (Or, for a contemporary reference, Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder).
TÁR bears some other similarities to the 1950 classic. The film is firmly and unapologetically entrenched in classical music, as All About Eve was in the world of theater. Field’s screenplay is razor-sharp, sluicing through the high-end global culture surrounding the orchestral stage. It rattles off musical theories, well-known identities, and historical references with the swiftness and force of Tár with a baton. Field keeps his script from inaccessibility with another of All About Eve’s strengths: vicious, acerbic wit. Tár’s acid-tongued witticisms range from light nudges to soul-crushing blows, but her cleverness and audacity are consistently astounding. If you get it, then the laughter, or the shock, is warranted. Field makes you want to pull up Google and figure it out if you don’t. Either way, Field leaves you thinking about the barbs long after the credits roll.
Todd Field’s tight direction and barbed screenplay are all in service of Lydia Tár and, by extension, Cate Blanchett. Like Bette Davis and Viola Davis and their roles mentioned above, it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Tár. With her slicked-back blonde hair and sharply-tailored suiting, Blanchett has constructed what may be the most memorable character of her career. More than an imminent Halloween costume, she gives an utterly captivating performance. She doesn’t waste a single frame, locking you in with a stunning blend of confidence, humor, cruelty, sensuality, paranoia, and shocking ferocity. You can see the severity of Tár’s toxic ambition in every movement and expression Blanchett makes, whether she’s engrossed in a rehearsal or cutting a student down. Tár is an exceptionally written character, but Blanchett provides everything that makes her unforgettable.
After watching TÁR, it almost feels wrong that Lydia Tár isn’t a fictional character. Cate Blanchett and Todd Field so thoroughly conceive and entrench her in our world that the film feels like a too-soon biopic. Tár should have a thousand online think pieces excoriating or valorizing her or countless fancams spreading on TikTok or Twitter. She’d probably have an Apple Notes-written Instagram post decrying the film’s existence.
Sadly, for us, Lydia Tár is not real, but thanks to Blanchett and Field’s exemplary work, her legend will endure.