Todd Field’s TÁR often made me feel as though I was not in my own body, like I was having some kind of aneurysm and that I would die before the movie ended. Don’t let that description deter you from seeing it: on the contrary, it’s the most wholehearted endorsement I can provide of a film so audacious that it doesn’t even feel real.
At the center of TÁR is Lydia Tár, a fictional, contemporary composer and conductor. It is set in November 2022, a few weeks out, making it hard to say whether the events of the film might come true. Tár herself, played entirely in tune by Cate Blanchett, is a contemporary Leonard Bernstein: an omnipresent figure in the arts who has transcended the world of “classical music” into something far more global (it’s also worth mentioning that she’s a lesbian and an EGOT). Blanchett is commanding and terrifying, preening and sharp, grouchy and tender. She wears some of the finest suits you’ve ever seen; a sweater draped over her shoulders when it’s drafty. Tár is on track to finish conducting all of Mahler’s symphonies, saving his 5th and possibly most famous for last. It’s a commanding piece, all-consuming and haunting.
The film itself is structured a bit like a symphony, full of both long phrases and short asides. A symphony is typically a four-part piece of symphonic music that cycles through various themes and emotions, always circling back on itself. TÁR’s beginning steels us for what’s to come: opening with its below-the-line credits before launching us to a scene at the New Yorker Festival, in which Tár is in conversation with Adam Gopnik (playing himself). From there, she goes to lunch with a fellow composer (a be-wigged Mark Strong) who works for her foundation. They talk inside baseball, and then she’s off to Juilliard to teach a guest lecture. This first act of TÁR is overwhelming — so dry and full of jargon that it’s tough to tell what the movie wants us to know. These moments, however, this thesis statement that starts the film, is a type of musical gesturing itself: a self-pronouncement of TÁR (and Tár’s) values.
From there, the movie clips along. There are scenes that stretch into something lyrical and nostalgic, as well as abrupt bursts of passion and anger and fear. Tár’s insomnia repeats night after night, her bare feet padding around her apartment is its own variation on a theme. Characters swirl in and out of the action: Tár’s wife Sharon (the great Nina Hoss) who is also her concert master (first violinist), her assistant Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant), her mentor Andris (Julian Glover), her hot new cellist (Sophie Kauer in a great debut). But mostly it’s Tár’s world and we’re just living in it.
I can endorse Tár by telling you some parts of it, like “Tár threatens a child in TÁR” (true) or “Tár goes on Alec Baldwin’s podcast in TÁR” (also true) or “Tár cries to old Leonard Bernstein videos in TÁR” (true again), and it will sound as though I am laughing at those parts of the movie. I am laughing at those parts of the movie. They’re funny. For a film concerned with its own aesthetic specificity — the cut of a collar, the volume of the clarinets — it’s rich with jokes and funny moments. For those who sat through Todd Haynes’s 2015 movie Carol — also starring Blanchett as a lesbian — going, “omg Carol is being so crazy,” you’re going to lose it with Tár. Though TÁR isn’t necessarily a “haha” comedy (it’s no Bros, say), Tár herself is so idiosyncratic that it gets more and more funny to watch her become angry, annoyed, and horny. She paints herself a genius, but she is fallible in all the normal human ways.
In the press conference after the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival on Monday, Blanchett spoke of TÁR being far more of a rehearsal film than a performance film: it is about the shoddy, confusing mix-ups that often precede the best work. But of course, TÁR would also argue that the rehearsal is just as much of a performance as the performance itself. That even when some is not on display, they are being watched, heard, felt. It is about a person who is never exactly finished.
Much has been made already about TÁR’s conversation with the concept of cancel culture, that it is one of the rare #MeToo movies that seems to be getting it right. Reducing TÁR to the logline of “Tár gets canceled” is insulting not only to conversations around sexual misconduct, but also what the film itself actively fights against. What is Tár if not her sins and her blessings in one? But to condense TÁR to its social politics also ignores its aesthetic aspects, its crisp composition and eerie scoring by Joker’s Hildur Guðnadóttir — fitting, as TÁR isn’t not a sort of female Joker. TÁR is less about who has the right to power in the arts (no one?) and more about the push and pull between emotion and bureaucracy, lust and ambition. It’s easy for Tár and others to pretend that the works of the great Austro-Germanic masters existed in a bubble, that Beethoven et al did not live in their worlds as much as we live in ours, but classical music has always been a industry motivated by money and power and sex, just like the rest. Tár stands at the top of a crumbling ruin just as those before her once did. Still: the orchestra plays on.
TÁR isn’t not a sort of female Joker.
“If you want to dance the mask, you must service the composer,” Tár announces to a group of Juilliard students. This is, to be clear, a nonsense phrase, one that does not so much describe the film’s ethos but rather its approach to its own philosophies. “If you want to dance the mask” — conduct the music, I guess? I’ve never heard anyone in the classical music world refer to anything as masks — “you must service the composer” — pay attention to the score. But then again: the act of conducting is also an adaptation. The score is Play-Doh in any conductor’s hands. This moment of dialogue, however, just doesn’t make sense. Even my auto-correct is asking me what the hell is going on. But Tár isn’t there to teach students. She is threatening them, treating them with malice and condescension. It is all a matter of appearances with Tár. One of the students ought to be brave enough to speak out against her inane idiom, but the atmosphere in the room is too cursed already just by her presence. Instead, one of them walks out.
TÁR conjures the eeriness of Black Swan, the dry wit of Clouds of Sils Maria, and the agony of The Piano Teacher. In its rollicking and surreal second half, I was also reminded of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night, starring his wife Gena Rowlands as an actress on the brink of insanity on the cusp of her play’s opening night. These films, despite their occasional (or extended) bouts of intensity, are also darkly funny films, rich with a self-awareness. Though TÁR avoids playing its hand too soon, its first 20 minutes are soon revealed to be a mere set-up for a great punchline, the whole thing a grand cosmic joke.