Tár: character study of power-crazy artist undone by a weak plot

Todd Field, “Tár” (2022)

It has all the ingredients to be a great film – an excellent cast, a stunning performance from its main star Cate Blanchett as the eponymous Lydia Tár, excellent cinematography, unforgettable settings – but unfortunately this character study is undone by a weak and ill-structured story that lags far too long in its first hour. Initially “Tár” presents as a documentary-style fly-on-the-wall film in which the camera lovingly follows famous American conductor Tár going about her busy life: interviewed at an arts festival by Adam Gopnik (Gopnik playing himself), Tár promotes her new memoir and talks about her ambition to conduct and record Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra which she conducts. We see Tár relying on her personal assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), a conductor herself and an ex-paramour of Tár’s. Later Tár has lunch with banker Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), himself an amateur conductor who manages Tár’s foundation that supports aspiring female conductors in a profession long dominated by men. Tár and Kaplan talk about replacing the assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner), despite his loyalty and the rapport he enjoys with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra musicians and filling the vacancy for a second cellist. When Tár is not hard at work conducting the orchestra and overseeing the preparations to record Mahler’s Fifth, she goes to her old studio to work on her own compositions, occasionally goes home to her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also the first violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic, and takes their adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) to school.

Tár guest-teaches at the famous Juilliard School in New York where she admonishes a student for being uninterested in the work of past cisgender composers, telling him that students should focus on the work done by composers. Tár receives a parcel from a former lover Krista Taylor, a past assistant conductor now being blacklisted by Tár after their relationship went sour and Taylor started behaving erratically. Tár disposes of the parcel in anger. Later, Tár spots a Russian girl Olga (Sophie Kauer) in the bathroom preparing for the blind audition for the cello vacancy and changes the girl’s scorecard so that Olga gets the vacancy and then the coveted soloist position for the companion piece to Mahler’s Fifth, this being Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor.

Upset that her messages to Tár are going unanswered, Krista Taylor commits suicide. Tár tells Francesca to get rid of any email and other messages from Taylor and hires a lawyer as Taylor’s parents prepare legal action against her. Tár then tells Sebastian that he is being replaced and Sebastian angrily retorts that the entire orchestra knows about her manipulative behaviour towards young women and that he knows she is going to replace him with Francesca. Shocked and unsettled by Sebastian’s outburst, Tár changes her mind about giving Sebastian’s position to Francesca; as a result, Francesca resigns as Tár’s assistant without telling her. From this moment on, Tár’s world starts falling apart: a video of Tár’s Juilliard class, deliberately edited, becomes viral and the lawyers for Taylor’s parents require Tár to attend a deposition. The Kaplan foundation severs ties with Tár and finds a new conductor to replace her. Sharon, furious with Tár over her attraction to Olga and the way she sneaked the girl into the orchestra, throws her out of their apartment. Retreating to her old studio, Tár becomes depressed and deranged, subject to hallucinations and erratic behaviour that ultimately costs her her job with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The film is very uneven, lagging in its first half where very little happens and then speeding up in its second half. Blanchett’s heroic, even overly melodramatic performance as Tár isn’t enough to save the film and the holes in the script which audiences are expected to fill in for themselves. The weakness is most obvious at what should be the climax of the film when the results of the Taylors’ lawsuit come in; all of a sudden, Tár is on her own, retreating to her old family home and then ending up alone and washed up in the Philippines. One appreciates the script was written from Tár’s limited point of view to encourage audiences to sympathise and identify with her struggles as her world falls around her and close friends begin to desert her once the full extent of her manipulations and predatory behaviours towards young women she is supposed to be mentoring becomes known; but at the same time there’s no excuse for the script-writers not to have included more scenes with Tár where she is confronted with her lies and evasiveness, and the full tragedy of her harassment of Taylor which drove the other woman to suicide.

Intended to be a portrait of how power and ambition can corrupt people and rob them of their humanity and connection to others – one notes how Tár lives in quite a sterile and cold environment even at home with Sharon and Petra – the film instead ends up being a banal soap opera treatment of its main character, shying away from the details of the crises she undergoes. At the end of the film Tár survives and finds an outlet for her conducting talent away from the rarefied and insular classical music world – but there is no indication that she has learned anything much from her ordeals and has become a better and mature person.