Tár ★★★½

Women don’t often get to be the center of stories about genius. There have been countless versions of Van Gogh’s struggle with both his art and his madness. In the classical music field, Amadeus serves as the standard for that small but rich genre of film. When women do feature in such stories, they are often in cliched roles like the long-suffering partner (Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind). It is interesting then that Tár, in which Cate Blanchett plays a world-renowned fictional conductor named Lydia Tár, both fits squarely into the cliches of the genius movie genre, and also pushes back against those tropes in interesting ways.


Tár, director Todd Field’s first feature film in more than 15 years, presents a claustrophobic world that Tár has created through her deserved success. We spend a lot of time not only hearing her speak and actually creating her art but also following her through mundane business meetings, working out, taking her child to school, etc. Spending so much time with Blanchett, we feel as if we are being offered a unique perspective into her character’s life, even as major motivations for some events remain hidden to us. Field chooses to focus his camera mostly on Blanchett and her compelling presence while other characters are forced to enter her space on her own terms. Early in the film, an extraordinary scene in a classroom where Tár lectures her students on the importance of studying the (White, male) canon establishes not only a dynamic of power that will slowly become more obvious in its presence in her life, but it also demonstrates how much Tár can command a room with not just formidable knowledge but the conviction that she is absolutely right.

Interestingly, Tár is similar to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman in that both portray their protagonists as so set in their worlds and routines that even the most minor cracks in the facade of “normality” in both of the protagonists’ lives are harbingers of a much more dramatic breakdown. Whereas Jeanne Dielman keeps its protagonist at a distance, emotionally and even physically, Tár offers the illusion of intimacy and closeness. Tár is so invested in what its protagonist has to say that we listen to long conversations about classical music, a topic on which an audience would get varying degrees of interest out of. Field’s greatest strength is how well he shows that investment, in every aspect of the film from sound to staging to performance. 

The length of the film and how much time it spends with Blanchett could be a drawback for an impatient audience. But Blanchett is so magnetic that she easily carries these scenes of such intense focus. She is able to embody both the deep comfort she has from her privilege and the devastating effects on her psyche and behavior when those comforts are slowly threatened. Often, Blanchett’s natural film persona is one of coldness and distance, even if her character is meant to be generally benevolent (such as Galadriel from Lord of the Rings), and such a distance is perfect for the savage genius of Lydia Tár. The story of Tár getting “canceled” is presented as one of several possible story threads rather than the main thread, which a lesser movie would have probably done. The relatively minor nature of that story reflects Tár’s own myopia about her world and what it is truly like, a story that both Blanchett and Field pull off brilliantly.

Blanchett as Tár is a type of performance we have seen before, a genius whose brilliance overshadows their own flaws. Movies about genius tend to focus on how their genius is misunderstood and iconoclastic rather than on the individuals themselves. Personal lives seem to be almost an inconvenience for the genius that possibly prevents them from reaching their full potential. Tár inverts these tropes to make an immersive, fascinating character study that somehow becomes more mystifying even as we supposedly get closer to the truth of the character, and even if Tár is fictional, she feels more real than real geniuses that have been depicted on-screen.

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