“Lydia Tár is many things” exclaims New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself in one of many ways writer/director Todd Field grounds this purely fictional story within our reality) as he introduces the titular composer for an interview as part of a cultural festival. Listing off her various achievements, which include being the first person to lead each of the Big Five symphony orchestras and one of the few to reach EGOT status, Gopnik labels Tár as a revolutionary within the classical composing world, a sentiment the audience - likely filled with rich patrons of the arts - reflects as they hang on to her every word.
In the hands of lesser filmmakers and leading stars, this opening 10-15 minute scene, which merely consists of a Q&A about Lydia’s position on some issues within the industry, would seem pedantic and expository as we’re meant to quickly understand why people would fall head over heels for the genius of this fictional character. But when you cast Cate Blanchett, who’s incapable of delivering a bad scene, let alone a bad performance, that task becomes as easy as breathing. And when you combine her with Todd Field, returning to the silver screen for the first time in sixteen years, that breath is one of the freshest ones you’ll take this year.
From that scene, which brilliantly gives us the nudge needed to descend further into the rabbit hole that is this character’s psyche, Field takes us on a fascinating journey through the unraveling life of Lydia Tár. She has a personal assistant named Francesca (Noémie Merlant, one half of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) who is by her at every stop, most notably a seminar at Juilliard where Lydia gets into an argument (all done in one long continuous take, one of many scenes that flow uneasily in real-time) with a student about how today’s generation has to separate the art from the artist and that “if you want to dance the mask, you must service the composer.”
The controversy that emerges from that is only the tip of the iceberg for Tár. Along with unceremoniously pushing out her assistant composer and a burgeoning predator/prey dynamic with her lead cellist, there are also legal threats after Lydia’s former protégé committed suicide, with possible motives linked back to her.
For all you who completionists who demand films answer the questions they raise, both literally and metaphorically, TÁR will seem like an exercise in futility. Because if there’s one thing Field learned as the protégé of Stanley Kubrick (for which Field played the piano playing character Nick Nightingale in the master’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut) aside from impeccably precise visuals and dread-filled drip editing (supplied here by Florian Hoffmeister and Monika Willi, respectively), it’s the ability to make the unsatisfying loose ends of a story seem so naturally satisfying. There are no easy answers within Field’s film as he meticulously studies his central character, for whom he shares no predisposed love or hatred. It’s for the audience to decide if Lydia’s fate, which is sealed with a visual setup and punchline so hilarious that it might as well have been ghost directed by Mel Brooks, matches her “crimes.” Any post-screening conversation surrounding will no doubt be as intellectually stimulating as the film itself.
As our guide during that examination, Blanchett reaches another echelon in a career that peaks have only marked. One could not be ridiculed for mistaking Lydia Tár as a real person, as the details and nuances Blanchett infuse the character with are ones usually found within Oscar-bait biopics, which she’s already conquered with The Aviator, Elizabeth (the less said about its sequel the better), and I’m Not There. Surrounding her is an impressive European supporting cast of Nina Hoss, Mark Strong, and Sophie Kauer.
If TÁR is meant to mark the second coming of Todd Field’s career, then we should all be in for a lengthy treat for the mind, body, and soul. But if this was only a brief blip and we’re subjected to another sixteen-year absence, then I at least know what my most anticipated film of 2038 will be.