Cate Blanchett enthralls as a world-class conductor careening towards professional and personal implosion.

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Lydia Tár is one of the great cinematic villains. Control and cleanliness have replaced warmth and authenticity. She’s in love with the sound of her own voice, believing the hype that her pronouncements are oracular. She expects to be fawned over and obeyed. As conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the transactional nature of her workplace relationships has spilled into home life with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and her more-than-friendship with her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant).

Played with complete abandon by Cate Blanchett, Lydia Tár is also a great villain because she’s tragic and pitiable. The two brilliant opening scenes of Tár make this apparent. In the first, an onstage interview with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, she looks shattered and fragile backstage, before putting on her public game face. In the second, a masterclass at Juilliard, she projects her frustrated composer ambitions onto the class, singling out and humiliating one student in particular.

Lydia’s favorite term of derision—robot, usually shouted—is likewise a projection of her despair at being an interpreter of other people’s works, rather than creating her own. Yet the air she breathes is so rarefied, she denies any gender bias in the classical music world. (Marin Alsop, on whom Lydia is so clearly modeled—minus the whole sociopathic thing—would no doubt like to have a word with her.)

Like all films with the smartest scripts, Tár is full of questions, but refuses pat answers.

Written and directed by Todd Field, Tár is storytelling par excellence, unspooling two parallel narratives. The public story is the sausage-making behind one of the world’s great orchestras. No less an authority than Yo-Yo Ma has praised the film’s authenticity, aided no doubt by all those Dresden Philharmonic players functioning as extras. Across the film, Lydia is frantically rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth, to finish recording a symphonic cycle interrupted by the pandemic.

In private, Krista Taylor, a pretty young thing once groomed but now spurned by Lydia, is falling apart. The callousness of Lydia’s ghosting is seen in a quick shot of a legal pad, where she’s rearranged the letters in Krista’s name to form “at risk.” Meanwhile, Lydia’s growing coldness towards Francesca signals the conductor is clearing space in her sclerotic heart for a new pet.

Public and private collide in the arrival of a new cellist for the Philharmonic. Lydia is instantly smitten with Olga (Sophie Kauer), conveyed wordlessly through a series of rapid cuts during an orchestra rehearsal: their eyes meet—both smile—Lydia unconsciously fixes her hair—Sharon takes note and glowers.

Olga tantalizes Lydia by artlessly refusing to be groomed. At lunch together, Lydia presses her repeatedly to order the dainty cucumber salad, just like her. Like any impoverished, ravenous youngster, Olga opts for the high-calorie schnitzel, wolfing it down with a basket of bread.

Tár’s supporting cast is flawless, but this is totally Lydia’s (and Blanchett’s) show. There’s nary a scene without her, and we growingly realize we’re seeing the world from her point of view. This subjectivity can be frustrating, as we seek to discern the exact nature of her relationships with others shown onscreen. But it’s utterly necessary, as we start to question if some of her and our perceptions are reality-based.

In addition, the director and his editor Monika Willi cleverly portray Lydia’s disintegration through scene length. The Juilliard sequence was shot as a single take, and the New Yorker interview feels like it was. By film’s end, scenes are choppy, the imagery stranger.

Like all films with the smartest scripts, Tár is full of questions, but refuses pat answers. As we seek to embrace diversity, should our esteem of canonical artists change with the times? If a person is monstrous, should that affect our evaluation of their work? Has #metoo gone too far, where the accused are immediately judged guilty?

Fitting for a film mostly set in Germany, Tár contextualizes these questions in the country’s history. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer reportedly abused his wife, so should we devalue his ideas? Two of the Berlin Philharmonic’s lead conductors (Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler) flourished under Nazism, so do we discard their recordings?

I loved the delicious ironies of Tár as well. Lydia proclaims that Mahler’s Fifth is a symphony of love, but aside from a few moments with her daughter Petra, she seems incapable of it. Her mentor was Leonard Bernstein, whose prodigious talent didn’t preclude him from sincere, constructive interactions with younger generations. (He also was much more successful in achieving the composer/conductor balance.)

The film’s insider perspective on classical music will certainly appeal to aficionados like me, but its references are clear enough for anyone to appreciate. This may seem weird, but in this respect, I’d compare it to Moneyball. If you follow baseball, you more fully comprehend this 2011 film’s milieu and name drops, but its story engages non-fans, too.

My main critique of Tár is that the outrageous behavior leading into the final act beggared belief. But, my God, what a fascinating, unforeseen final act!

For her performance here, Cate Blanchett won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. Come January, I’ll be astonished if she and Field don’t earn a plethora of Oscar nominations. Sadly, this is only Field’s third feature, after 2001’s In the Bedroom and 2006’s Little Children. The years since 2006 contained multiple stalled and cancelled projects for him. Maybe it’s too much to ask of a Hollywood oversaturated with juvenilia, but hopefully the distinctive brilliance of Tár will permit Field’s future efforts to reach fruition.

4.5 out of 5 stars

(Tár is now playing in theaters.)

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