George Bernard Shaw said, “Life is not about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” American Artists understand this perhaps better than anyone. They are often characters of their own making, their early lives a fabrication, a fiction. No problem ditching mundane beginnings for a more colorful past in pursuit of an artistic identity. Bob Dylan told early interviewers that he ran away from home as a kid to join a carnival, not that his father ran an appliance store in Hibbing, MN.
So enter Lydia Tár (née Linda Tarr), a world famous classical music conductor in Todd Field’s captivating ode to narcissism. The film is simply titled “Tár” because in her world she is as singular as Cher or Madonna. She is the only person in the room who matters, at least to her. Played with great verve and conviction by Cate Blanchett, her performance as a woman slowly unraveling is reminiscent of Gena Rowlands’ tour-de-force in “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974). She’s like a violin string wound so tight it’s about to snap.
Tár is a woman who has meticulously crafted her persona stich-by-stich. In the opening scene, the film cuts between her tailored shirts and suits being fitted and sewn by hand to an on-stage interview conducted by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. (It’s an extended introductory and expository scene that probably could have been half as long.) With every hair in place, being Tár is a performance in itself. She is by turns brilliant, engaging, and fussy, and controlled to the max. Blanchett is the kind of protean actor who can play soft (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”) or hard (“Nightmare Alley”) and here there is not a soft bone in her body.
Tár is someone who has sought complete control of her life and career, and achieved it, to the point where she can stop and start time with the raising of her baton. Field, who also wrote the exacting screenplay, isn’t as interested in how she got there as in the monster she has become. Tár is, in short, a terrible person. Imperious and dismissive, she has little patience for those who serve her. One can only imagine the bodies she has stepped over in a profession dominated by men to get to where she is as lead conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and an international star about to restage Mahler’s Fifty Symphony.
Tár luxuriates in her position of power as if it were her birthright. Though she describes herself as a garden-variety lesbian, and she is married to her long-suffering first violinist (Nina Hoss) and has a young daughter, she seems interested in relationships only to exercise her authority. And this is ultimately how she gets into trouble, using her position to commandeer a succession of young female assistants, as she undoubtedly once was herself.
Sex seems to be beside the point. Her passion is reserved for the podium where she comes alive, arms outstretched to embrace life. It’s a part Field wrote for Blanchett, who is so ferocious and commanding it’s impossible to look away, in the way one might look at a car wreck. She’s a fascinatingly flawed character. It’s a bold choice and an unusual one by Field to have someone so unlikable at the center of his film, but that sets up where he wants to take it.
Tár is an egotist, not a feminist. We are so used to seeing men behaving badly, that it’s surprising to see a woman doing the same. It’s a provocative turnaround that highlights a number of contemporary issues. But in reality how many women actually have the power to abuse, especially in the context of classical music? Field, who has not directed a film since “Little Children” in 2006, is, if nothing, an equal opportunity critic of modern mores.
Tár runs headlong into the gauntlet of political correctness. She is charged and convicted in the court of public opinion, even if some of the evidence is conveniently falsified. And then it all comes apart on stage as she physically attacks a soloist.
In a scene near the end, with all of her bridges torpedoed, Tár returns to her prosaic childhood home, looking for what? Solace, her identity, the person she was? Those things don’t exist for her anymore, killed by her own hand. She is no longer, and has not been for many years, the Linda Tarr of her youth, enthralled by Leonard Bernstein and looking to soar beyond the provincial world she was born into. She did, and now she is a mean, spiteful, self-absorbed genius who unthinkingly creates pain and suffering for those around her.
That she’s an artist, possibly a great one, doesn’t save her from her fate. Should she be held accountable for her perhaps fatal misdeeds? Of course. But should her life and career be cancelled? That’s the question posed by “Tár,” for which there is no easy answer.