Few directors have whetted anticipation more keenly, or for longer, than Todd Field, who burst onto the scene in 2001 with In the Bedroom, a devastating account of a middle-aged couple who suffer the sudden, violent loss of a grown child. Field’s insight in this near-perfect film lay in understanding how the seismic pressures of grief will exploit the fault lines of even a happy marriage, setting off eruptions of wounding rage. Script, camerawork, editing, and acting all combined to capture a marriage imploding in recrimination, and the result was a deftly calibrated, profoundly harrowing study of two people driven wild by grief.
In the Bedroom notched five Oscar nominations and thrilled critics. Eager fans had to wait five years for Little Children, which added three more Oscar nominations to Field’s résumé, and then fifteen more years, during which the director pursued a number of unrealized projects—including a planned Showtime adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity—before deciding to build his third movie around a highly topical and high-concept question: In the age of #MeToo, what if the Harvey Weinstein–like perpetrator were a woman, and a lesbian to boot? And thus we have Tár, a workplace-ethics, sexual-exploitation drama that offers a brooding, somber meditation on the pathology of power.
Tár is a very long movie that seems like two or even three different movies bundled together. Its first hour-plus sets up as contemporary social realism, beginning with an onstage interview with the famed conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) by the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who plays himself. Gopnik’s fulsome introduction of Tár details her glimmering résumé and lauds her as an EGOT—winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. Having conducted all Big Five American symphony orchestras (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia), Tár is now ensconced as the first female conductor of the vaunted Berlin Philharmonic, and Nan A. Talese at Doubleday is publishing her memoir, Tár on Tár—“a perfect stocking stuffer,” Gopnik chortles, “if you have a really big stocking!”
Tár herself—or rather, her onstage presence in the interview—is just as impressive. Describing her ethnographic field work in the Amazon; citing her mentor Leonard Bernstein on the concept of teshuvah; detailing the crisis in Gustav Mahler’s life when his wife, Alma, left him for Walter Gropius; telling a droll story about a seventeenth-century French composer who injured himself with his conducting staff and died of gangrene—bing bang bop, it’s the nimble cultural volleying of a performer at the top of her game, as well as an adroit rendering of a highbrow, 92nd-Street-Y kind of Manhattan cultural event, where the apt reference or zingy bon mot triggers a murmur of faintly self-congratulatory pleasure—the smart interviewer, the brilliant cultural star, the audience that gets it.
Tár’s performance continues in the next scene, during the master class in conducting she teaches at Juilliard, where she prowls the room, dishing out an entertaining but caustic monologue and wielding a stiletto wit on students to reinforce her points. It is an old-school, deeply male pedagogy, replete with smiling, scathing takedowns; and our awareness of the dissonance between Tár’s overbearing teaching style and our era’s sensitivities creates a gripping dramatic irony, as we watch her careening heedlessly toward disaster. When a student conductor remarks that he’s “not really into Bach,” explaining that “as a BIPOC pangender person, Bach’s misogynistic life makes it impossible for me,” Tár pounces. Scolding the kid—“Don’t be so eager to be offended!”—she then sits him down next to her at the piano, where she plays a Bach melody and continues riffing at his expense. If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his category, she warns, “so can yours.” Reminding the class that the composer of the piece under consideration is (a) Icelandic, and (b) “a super-hot young woman,” Tár asks, “How can any of these things possibly relate to the person you see sitting before us?” Humiliated, the student leaves.