November 18, 2022
FOR ALL THE OSTENTATIOUS images captured in TAR, Todd Field’s first new movie in 16 years — its star bent over her podium with arms stretched to opposite corners of the frame, the plane of its marital bed made to look as flat and harsh as the walls of its Berlin home, a brutalist tomb — the one that has burrowed into my brain is of a baseball cap. Toward the end of the first act, Lydia Tar, the rare modern conductor and composer who has crossed over into the NPR quasi-mainstream, is ferried to JFK in a luxury sedan. This is a film of cocoons, insulation: we see an establishing shot of the car, from high above and behind, as it glides through a tunnel, while inside, Lydia (Cate Blanchett) and her assistant, an aspiring conductor named Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant), sit comfortably, quietly, motionless. Lydia wears a hat with the New York Rangers logo, not in its official color scheme or, in the style of W. Bush-era fitteds, faded into the hue of the hat’s background. Instead, the crest is a shock of red-orange that cuts through the blacks and grays of the backseat scene like a lit cigarette in the dark.
Lydia is fastidious. throughout TAR, we see the moderate germophobia that has become common enough to be a class marker; she is a practiced dresser, with even her baggiest, most allegedly unassuming outfits draped on her frame just so. But the hat is so crisp and clean that we presume it was a gift and know it’s an afterthought. At the other end of this flight, when she steps into that cool Berlin home and her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), notes the expensive luggage in tow, Lydia rolls her eyes. “It was a gift,” she says. “Do you want it?”
Though its characters would not admit it, the artists and benefactors (and, perhaps, audiences) of TAR are interested in a different type of consumption. As we learn in its extended opening sequence, an onstage interview with The New Yorker Writer Adam Gopnik, Lydia has conducted orchestras around the world after building a reputation by embedding herself in groups of Indigenous people. She dispenses their wisdom, like that of her supposed mentor Leonard Bernstein, with a treacly put-on reverence. Blanchett, whose two Oscar wins are for much more caffeinated performances (as Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s The Aviator and as a spiraling widow in 2013’s Blue Jasmine), pronounces each of the many non-English words in Lydia’s vocabulary with learned precision, making her the sort of preening, technically correct speaker eager to flaunt her talismanic obsessions. One of the two apartments she keeps in Berlin is decorated with pictures of her among the people she studied.
It is easy, even before the coda that takes place in a pointedly unnamed country in Southeast Asia, to read TAR as a film about the soft imperialism of high culture. (The orchestra Lydia conducts in that final stretch is played by musicians from Bangkok, though a riverboat tour guide warns her of crocodiles descended from those imported “for Marlon Brando’s movie”; Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines.) Transposing the music of a far-flung society into the hermetic concert halls frequented by the rich is at worst grotesque and at best vaguely embarrassing. Discussions about this dynamic cast it as pernicious, even violent — and sometimes it is. But TAR instead for the effective powerlessness of the world it depicts, a bubble so narcotized and remote that it is more or less cut off from the communities on which it leeches. Seeking refuge within it is like entering a medically induced coma, or applying to grad school.
To that point — the hat. After Lydia’s life disintegrates, she retreats to her childhood home on Staten Island, one filled with plastic trophies and certificates awarded to a Linda Tarr. (The exoticization of her name is evidently a sore spot for her brother, who does not greet her warmly.) That this woman is from Somewhere seems self-evidently bizarre. She is her résumé, a clot of influences and self-consciously chosen rites. The irony is that, for all her railing against the reduction of 18th-century composers to their demographic categories, this is clearly how she views the people whose cultures she flattens into internships. And so comes her shame at the roots she must think are terribly provincial, the roots whose only trace in her adult life is either left in an overhead bin or tossed into the back of a closet in Berlin to be lost, donated, forgotten.
The least interesting thing you can say about any dramatic work — and it’s a reading that’s ubiquitous in contemporary criticism — is that it’s “about power.” Because of course this is true: the way a scene is blocked (or, for that matter, edited) is meant to communicate these shifting advantages; How characters are dressed, cast, even named hints at hierarchies that they will be upset or reinforced. It’s like saying a script is about “the human condition,” or “trauma.” King Lear is about power, but so is, say, Cruella. While TAR notes with some derision the limits of its characters’ influence on anyone but each other, it also underlines their obsession with the social and professional strata they occupy. This is not its topic, but its architecture.
Nor is TAR‘s topic cancel culture, as so many of its detractors (and some of its proponents) seem to think. Field’s script does not mean to litigate whether the allegations of sexual impropriety and professional misconduct against Lydia are true, or whether the professional consequences she suffers are proportional. It relies instead on the audience’s familiarity with the rhythms of these celebrity cancellations. In this sense, Lydia’s fall from grace might as well be a high school graduation, or the week of a best friend’s wedding — it’s a pressure cooker, a means to take a controlling person out of control.
This is not a movie that’s particularly interested in sex. The most intimate scene between Lydia and Sharon is a slow dance the former initiates to calm Sharon down after her frantic search for the medication Lydia has been stealing, and the most charged one between Lydia and Francesca sees the assistant linger in a hotel room, fishing in vain for an invitation to stay. While Francesca is obviously troubled by the increasingly distraught emails sent to Lydia by a former assistant who eventually commits suicide, she does not turn on Lydia until she’s passed over for a job.
Because he’s counting on the audience’s baseline understanding of these scandals — and because he doesn’t spend time putting Lydia’s transgressions, aside from emails urging orchestras to ignore the former assistant’s job applications, on screen — Field is able to shape TAR in a way that maximizes its unnerving atmosphere. The first hour of the film is dominated by very long scenes: the Gopnik interview, a lunch with the investment banker (Mark Strong) who runs Lydia’s fellowship program and fancies himself a conductor, and a master class at Juilliard, where she grows frustrated and mocks a student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who’s disinterested in Bach because of the composer’s long list of illegitimate children. (This last scene is Blanchett’s best: she is both withering and slightly stomped, stalking around the auditorium in an unbroken take before sitting down at a piano to play Bach — beautifully — until she snaps, a final time, at Smith-Gneist’s student. )
as Lydia’s Life Unravels, TAR‘s scenes grow shorter, surreal hints of something wrong creep into the margins of what had been a strictly naturalistic world, and Lydia’s bubble of comfort is finally punctured. A woman’s screams, heard during a morning jog, are never traced to their source. After dark, normal household sounds — the hum of a refrigerator — seem to signal poltergeists. Lydia imagines, in her daughter’s (Mila Bogojevic) bedroom, toys arranged in the same doodled labyrinth she finds in Francesca’s abandoned apartment. And in the sequence that comes closest to true horror, Lydia leaves her (silent) Porsche to chase after the Russian cellist (Sophie Kauer) with whom she’s become infatuated, only to find the complex she’s disappeared into totally empty, save for puddles of still water and a ferocious dog.
Lydia’s book launch in New York is dogged by protesters. (This is one of two moments when TAR becomes too broad, the first being Smith-Gneist’s reference to himself as “BIPOC.” Angry students run through the Manhattan streets beside Lydia’s SUV, waving the sort of painfully literal signs that plague movie and television scenes about these demonstrations. This is a composer!) She loses her job in Berlin; she loses Sharon and their daughter. When she arrives back in Staten Island, we are not meant to wonder whether she’s “guilty,” but whether, and how, she’ll recover.
Tucked just beneath the text of nearly every scene in TAR is a simple, nagging question: how good is Lydia Tar at her job? There’s no doubt that she knows how to talk about classical music and her relationship to it. A conversation with Sharon makes reference to her deliberate navigation of the Berlin Philharmonic’s surely byzantine internal politics. And as mentioned multiple times in the film, conductors’ careers are governed, at least in small part, by the player-evaluation sheets each musician fills out about those who lead them. If the pool of potential Lydia Társ is small, those within it must be subject to at least some meritocracy, no?
The shrewdest decision Field makes is to let us hear virtually none of the music Lydia conducts. There are fragments in rehearsal, but these are contextless and interrupted by her; the most sustained playing we witness is by the cellist, Olga. Her solos are stunning, but she arrived in Germany fully formed. We’re also given the sense that Lydia’s own compositions are secondary to her work at the podium—and the scenes of her stumbling through the writing process at the piano in her pied-à-terre are hardly inspiring. While TAR is not suggesting that Lydia is a fraud, or even necessarily a mediocrity, it does hold her body of work at a critical distance.
Eventually, Field has the character confront this uncertainty about anyone’s true talent. Threaded through the movie are conversations Lydia has, over lunch, with her predecessor at the Berlin Phil, Andris (Julian Glover). Much has been made about the parallels Andris draws between those accused of sexual impropriety and those swept up during denazification. But the most chilling thing he says is in response to Lydia’s lament that, when she sits down to write music, her head is clouded by pastiche. “It’s all pastiche,” Andris shrugs, reaching for more bread.
You wonder what distinctions, if any, Field draws between the creative agency of a conductor and that of a film director; you wonder if the full credits that roll before TAR begins are meant to undercut the notion of auteurship — or to provide a tidy list of those conspiring, like Lydia’s former protégés, to take someone like him down. But those opening credits also complicate the point of view in a movie that is otherwise almost entirely from Lydia’s perspective.
The first image we’re shown is of Lydia, asleep on a private jet, being livestreamed via a cell phone camera. A text message thread is superimposed. This device, which recurs later, almost certainly shows a running conversation between Olga and Francesca, one protégé who used to be enamored with the master, another who never was. TAR‘s truly audacious move is to show the world these people inhabit as its own closed ecosystem, one that needs fracturing events like the campaign against Lydia — righteous corrections and outlets for thwarted ambitions at once — in order to refresh, regenerate, or maybe just rearrange the order of things so that everyone gets fed.
Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.