Warning: Review contains some spoilers
When directors come back from hiatus it’s always kind of a trip. We’re probably never going to see something as wild as Terrence Malick making a dramatic comeback after thirty years off, but from time to time we get people coming back after a decade or so and that’s the case this year with the triumphant return of the director Todd Field. Field was never exactly being held up as the world’s greatest filmmaker but he seemed like a really promising voice in the early 2000s. His 2001 film In The Bedroom was a pretty bold debut; a nuanced depiction of grief and aging that was a pretty challenging piece of work for someone to be making when he was only thirty seven. He followed that up five years later with a social satire called Little Children, which was well liked but didn’t quite end up being a top-tier Oscar contender and also didn’t prove to be particularly popular. And after that he seemed to disappear. By all accounts this fifteen year stretch of seeming inactivity was not exactly by choice. Field was actively in development for all sorts of different projects that, for one reason or another, he wasn’t able to get funding for. I’m sure that if he was willing to sell out and take a more commercial project and gets more credits onto his IMDB but he seems to have held out until he had a project he really cared about. And it seems that project finally came around this year with his new film with Cate Blanchett: Tár.
The film is set in the world of classical music and follows a woman named Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who is introduced in the beginning as being a deeply accomplished composer and orchestra conductor who’s highly respected in her field and the founder of a non-profit for the advancement of women in classical music called Accordion. As the film begins she is about to start rehearsing a major concert with the Berlin Orchestra of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. She’s seemingly on top of the world, but something feels off. Her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is clearly disgruntled, her marriage to fellow musician Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) seems oddly transactional, and there’s a looming conflict with her assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner). But the crisis that especially seems looming is the fallout from the suicide of a former acolyte named Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote). Tár’s reaction to learning about this seems odd and one of the first thing she tries to do in response is purge her emails about Taylor and recommend that Francesca does the same. She’s clearly hiding something and it seems like it won’t be long until there’s quite a bit of fallout from this.
An obvious drawback of a filmmaker disappearing for fifteen years is that you kind of forget what made them so great in the first place while also not really knowing how they’ve evolved as artists or as people in the time that’s passed. I think that’s especially true for Field given that, while both of the films he made previously were good they were not necessarily ones that begged to be watched over and over again. I remember liking both movies but, especially in the case of Little Children, my memories of them are a little hazy so I’m perhaps not in the best place to really judge Tár in relation to Field as an auteur though from what I remember it has In the Bedroom’s interest in questions of justice and also Little Children’s interest in commenting on modern social mores but visually this feels a lot more ambitious than either of those movies, albeit in subtle ways. Tár doesn’t really have some immediately apparent trick or gimmick to how it looks but as the film begins the camerawork is notably very controlled and often quite still, perhaps reflecting the character’s stable and managed career and lifestyle and as things move along and unravel this becomes less the case. The movie never starts to be messy and handheld or anything but the camera and filmmaking subtly start working against Tár and the film’s sound scape starts reflecting a conflicted and perhaps slightly paranoid mind.
Tár has sometimes been talked about as a movie about “cancel culture” but it could perhaps be more accurately described as a movie about #MeToo, or perhaps it’s about both and is maybe trying to make a distinction between the two. Early in the film there’s a lengthy scene in which Tár is teaching at Juilliard and has a slightly heated conversation with a student who for some reason has it in his head that Johann Sebastian Bach is a “dead white man” who’s too problematic to study. She puts up a pretty smart defense of the baroque composer’s relevance, which the student doesn’t really appreciate and perhaps predictably her statements in this defense are eventually taken out of context and weaponized against her. That is perhaps an example of the kind of silly zoomer “cancel culture” that so many columns get written about, but both the film and the characters within it view this whole exchange as relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things. The things that really get her in trouble are much more serious breaches of trust and ethics, so in a way the film seems to be saying “don’t sweat the small stuff, “cancellation” should be reserved for the real predators.
And yet, I’m not sure the message is really that simple. Tár is what you’d call a “glass ceiling” breaker in terms of gender and sexual identity. She’s celebrated for this but downplays it in an interview early in the film, suggesting that with all her success she has nothing to complain about and that all the real barriers were already broken previously. Later she even suggests re-configuring her non-profit so as to not be specifically be about helping women, ostensibly because she doesn’t think women need special help anymore, an idea she only backs down from when she’s told it could cost them donations. This all speaks to a certain level of privilege, maybe not one entirely created by innate characteristics she was born with but perhaps a sort of survivorship bias: Lydia Tár is an elite enough talent to get past whatever gender biases exist in the world, so why shouldn’t the rest of the ladies? That’s not an uncommon attitude amongst the nouveau riche, who maybe are maybe a bit blinded to how exceptional their own stories are and what less obvious privileges benefited them. Of course she never comes out and expresses these sentiments so bluntly, she knows where the bread is buttered in “the modern discourse,” but her actions are not unlike the actions of powerful people who come in more traditional packages. And I don’t think it can be dismissed that this attitude is at play in that Juilliard classroom when she excitedly defended the traditional canon and by extension the existing order. That’s not to say that the film sides with the student who’s trying to cancel Bach, is arguments are juvenile and misguided, but given Tár’s other actions she becomes a less than ideal champion for the classics.
As to the “cancelling” of Tár herself, it is interesting in that the movie waits an awfully long time to show its hand in that regard. The film is very much what you’d call a “character study” and it spends a lot of time bringing you into Tár’s world before it really introduces the film’s eventual conflict in earnest. In a way this suggests that Tár’s façade is so meticulously built that it’s hidden even from us, the viewers who are ostensibly watching every moment of her life and believe she has everything so together that we don’t think twice even when she’s making hubristic mistakes like alienating an assistant who likely has a lot of dirt on her. The film reminded me of another #MeToo themed work, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, in that it shows the revelation of malfeasance as being something of a cold and undramatic for those in vicinity of the abuser who are enabling them in very subtle ways without really thinking about what they’re doing. And you as a viewer kind of find yourself feeling that way as you start to recontextualize some of Tár’s actions. The aforementioned defense of Bach starts to look different, her willingness to threaten a bully who was harassing her daughter starts to feel indicative of a brutal willingness to crush her perceived enemies, and you also start to wonder what her motivations for mentoring a young cellist that she takes under her wing and starts to mentor.
The movie certainly shows the audience enough evidence to make it pretty clear that she’s guilty on some level, but much as Tár herself doesn’t really witness the consequences of her actions on her victims the film doesn’t really show this either, which is perhaps a choice that will be controversial. By the film’s end Tár never really reckons with her own actions and it’s not clear really if she’s sorry or if she’s just sorry she got caught. We see late in the film that she’s disgusted by more overt versions of sex trafficking, so clearly there are some limits to her depravity, and that she likely simply doesn’t see her own actions as comparable, and perhaps not without reason. We don’t know the full extent of what she did or what shades of gray there were in these relationships that led to their downfall: did they seem like grooming to her? Was there some truth to the actions she took against Krista Taylor that seemingly sabotaged her career or was it just pure retaliation? The film leave enough ambiguous that you can think and wonder about these things and in the film’s final act as everything that Tár built up starts to crumble you can’t entirely help but want to salvage some of what’s being lost in her downfall. Striver that she is, she doesn’t go down completely without a fight in much the way we still see people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. try to keep their careers going in unusual ways to much controversy. Such indignities are perhaps a weak punishment given the stakes of what they are accused of but there is a tragedy to be found in genius talent being stifled and the movie has empathy for that… but it’s also clear as day that this wasn’t caused by some mistake in the culture, it was caused by Tár’s own selfishness and the only person she has to blame is herself.
****1/2 out of Five