Tár is perhaps not the most exciting title ever conceived for a film, but a character as narcissistic as Lydia Tár wouldn’t dare permit any confusion about who’s in charge here. This is her story, and in Tár’s mind that means she alone is the owner of that story. A story, a piece of music, a relationship, a marriage — these are not conversations or discussions, not malleable things that allow for multiple participants. These are possessions, shouldered entirely by their owner, and in a way those possessions define the identity of the owner herself. Any attempt by another to repossess those things, then, would be akin to destroying that identity.
If you’ve ever found yourself in contention with a true narcissist, you know how threatening that idea really is. Here, in Todd Field’s first film in sixteen years (his previous being the excellent Little Children), Cate Blanchett gives her all as the embattled and egomaniacal Tár, a decorated classical conductor on the verge of completing a massive cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. At first, the success Tár enjoys seems well-earned. She credits her mentors, gives back to the community and has amicable relationships with her assistant and her guest conductor. As the recording session for the final symphony approaches, though, we begin to see how Tár’s success has been built on a sinister foundation.
To suggest that Tár is a control freak would be an understatement, and an incomplete diagnosis of her character. Conducting, by definition, is control, and Tár’s opening monologue about the ability to stop, start, slow down or speed up time with the flick of her finger is the soliloquy of someone who thrives on being at the wheel. But how did she arrive at this station of total control, not just on the conducting podium but in every other aspect of her life? As Tár‘s first act progresses, the artist’s subtle gaslighting and delicate manipulations paint a picture of her climb to the top. On occasion these machinations seem almost like subconscious reflexes, particularly the way she steers the selection-by-committee of the orchestra’s new cellist, and it’s especially ironic for Tár to seemingly not have control over her need for control.
Which is not to excuse her behavior, of course. Tár derives a great deal of energy from all the interactions it chooses not to show, chief among them a long-ago relationship she had with a former pupil named Krista. We’re not shown a single shred of what transpired between Tár and her mentee, and yet we somehow understand the entire story as told through glances, email subject lines, whispered references from Tár’s assistant and anxious reactions from the conductor herself. Once the lid is blown off this history, of course, it becomes a lot more difficult for Tár to maintain the façade of innocence. Difficult in our eyes, of course, and in the eyes of everyone else in this world; but Tár herself must keep up appearances, even in the face of undeniable evidence. Her identity depends upon it.
Field’s film is a fairly long one, and one that takes its time, so your mileage may vary with Tár. Comparisons have already been drawn elsewhere to There Will Be Blood, and as far as the central character is concerned those comparisons are spot-on. Lydia Tár and Daniel Plainview are ruthless narcissists, living on a tightrope between total control and total helplessness, commanders of their own destinies in a way that would make Othello‘s Iago beam with pride. But the films themselves are very different, and it’s harder to sit with the conductor for nearly three hours than it is to follow the oilman for the same stretch. Maybe the time period makes it easier to hold Daniel Plainview at a remove, where there’s no such arm’s length possible with Lydia Tár; “cancel culture”, as it were, wasn’t quite as prevalent in the late 1800s.
So the persona of Tár is effectively destroyed by the film’s end, cancelled publicly (and rightfully), and the individual behind that persona is forced to face up to the enormity of her own past. Where to now? The film’s ending leaves that question hanging a bit, in a good way, forcing us to ask if Tár’s ultimate fate is comeuppance or a return to more humble beginnings. A pivotal scene in the lead-up to this conclusion has Tár rewatching old video of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein, advising that music is defined as the emotion it makes one feel. At the risk of excusing the inexcusable — if there happens to be some conscience in Tár after all — then perhaps all the love and determination and triumph she felt through music over the years were simply a salve for the guilt and shame she held within.
Cinema, too, might be subject to a similar definition: to ask what a film means might be answered by the emotion it elicits. With Tár, the answer is a lot more complicated than it appears at first blush. Are we meant to sympathize with this character at all? Or read into her actions in an instructive way? Tár herself insists that the intent of a given work is the key — so what is Field’s intent regarding class, or race, or gender, or sexuality, or any of the other social issues in which this character finds herself mired? The fact that there is no clear answer does not signify a lack of intent, but rather forces us to dig a bit deeper, to look past the shiny and well-polished surface, and to face up to the past.