Todd Field hit the ground running with In the Bedroom and Little Children, the latter of which is arguably the most underrated film of the 2010s. It took another 16 years, but Field has finally directed a third feature, TÁR. He also might’ve guided Cate Blanchett to her third Academy Award. Field has been described as an “actor’s director.” TÁR is another testament to that statement. While we go into every Blanchett picture expecting a great performance, she unearths what could be a career-best in TÁR. Blanchett commands the screen like a conductor, even as the titular Lydia Tár loses control of her surroundings.
The film opens seemingly spelling out everything we need to know about Lydia, a trailblazing female composer/conductor. As she sits down to an interview, her various accomplishments are listed, including an EGOT. This is only a Wikipedia page compared to the raw complexity dwelling beneath the surface. As dialogue-heavy as the film’s first act is, Field’s script never feels overstuffed. Even if you’re not brushed up on classical music, Lydia discusses the subject with such passion that it’s impossible not to be engrossed. I’ll admit, my knowledge extends to Fantasia, Amadeus, and Schroeder from Peanuts. If Lydia Tár hosted a music podcast, though, I’d hang on to every word.
It’s unclear where TÁR is going until the characters land on the subject of Johann Sebastian Bach. Where Lydia holds Bach in the highest regard, one of her students finds him irrelevant, being a cisgender white man who fathered 20 children. This naturally leads to a discussion about cancel culture, which easily could’ve backfired. TÁR handles the topic as intelligently as any film I’ve seen, however. That masterfully-written scene, in particular, is executed like a play where the actors come into the audience, making the experience more intimate and uncomfortable. Lydia delivers a compelling case for separating the artist from the art, although her argument begins to crumble as we pull back the veil of her personal life.
Lydia’s three closest relationships are with her long-suffering wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), quiet assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), and adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). She aspires to add a fourth person to that list, as Lydia grooms a young cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer) to become more than her protégé. Lydia’s one true love, though, is music, which is slowly stripped away from her when multiple controversies come to light. As TÁR progresses, the film becomes less reliant on dialogue, letting Blanchett’s expressions and body language tell us everything. Her performance is a symphony of showing (not telling).
For a film that tells us so much about Lydia Tár in the beginning, she’s almost an enigma by the end. The audience’s perception of a character (or a celebrity) depends on how the narrative is being controlled. They say that control is an illusion, and it can be taken away as easily as a conductor’s baton. Once Lydia loses her grip on the baton, the music drastically changes tune. Speaking of music, Hildur Guðnadóttir delivers another powerful score that says more than words ever could, although Field’s dialogue is exceptional. This is primarily Blanchette’s showcase, however. Just as a conductor towers over the orchestra from a podium, Blanchette’s work here may be the highest note of her already triumphant filmography.