What’s in a name? The writer-director Todd Field has chosen a tantalisingly polysemous one for the genius at the heart of Tár. The title, an anagram of “art,” suggests music specifically (the tar is a Persian lute), which is appropriate given that the formidable, vanilla-maned Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as a protégée of Leonard Bernstein and a member of the Egot club. She is also part of that less coveted group of cultural titans accused of sexual harassment and tarred with the #MeToo brush.
Her surname evokes exacting artistry (think of the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr) and archaic public punishment (tarred and feathered). It is shared with a computer file (.TAR), which would horrify Lydia, who is appalled that her new recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is bypassing vinyl, and whose catch-all insult for ideological opponents is “robot”. When she seeks counsel from a PR agency after her reputation hits the skids, their advice to this woman who rails against the robotic is priceless: “Reset.”
Describing herself as a “U-Haul lesbian”, she and her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) are raising their adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). The child’s name is a nod to Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, essentially a how-to manual for sadistic bullying lesbians in well-appointed German lofts.
Queer she may be, but the supposedly non-conformist Lydia is exploiting age-old power dynamics. A scrawled note from an ex-employee renames her “Rát”. That’s nothing compared to the torrent of emails she receives from Krista, a febrile former student. Rearranging the letters of the young woman’s name, Lydia realises they spell “at risk”.
Alongside these crafty, cryptic games, the film’s shifting tones create a Russian doll effect. Out of what appeared to be a character study pops a frigid comedy; from that emerges a horror movie and finally a bitter analysis of privilege and complacency. Even sound becomes a sort of stowaway. When Lydia goes jogging in the park, she hears blood-curdling screams in the distance – screams which Field has imported directly from The Blair Witch Project, as a DJ might sample a riff.
The movie is unmistakably a Blanchett blowout. She’s all sniper’s eyes and lashing tongue, and her line readings alone reveal Lydia’s distaste for boundaries: “We are all capable of murder, that is a fantastic handbag by the way,” she tells an interviewer, one thought running into the next. The cast includes Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) as Lydia’s woebegone assistant, and Sophie Kauer as the undaunted young cellist to whom Lydia takes a shine. And watch out for Hoss’s wounded flinch after being publicly cuckolded; it’s like an entire Ingmar Bergman film distilled in a single expression.
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If the menacingly gliding camerawork suggests Kubrickian surveillance, that’s no accident: Field, formerly an actor, played the pianist who provides Tom Cruise with entrée to an orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. Having made only two previous films (In the Bedroom and Little Children), it is not surprising that he lacks that master director’s rigour. Tár is burdened with superfluous dream sequences, while two crowd-pleasing tantrum scenes provide a comic release valve when a sustained pizzicato-style tension would have been the maverick choice. From Eyes Wide Shut, though, he has borrowed an ending marked by diminuendo, and the suggestion that reality is ever-so-slightly off-kilter. Tár begins, for instance, with the kind of lengthy credits usually reserved for the end. Perhaps, like a good conductor, Field just wants to make sure the whole orchestra gets its due.
Disreputable outlets have done their damnedest to adopt Lydia as an alt-right mascot (“Cate Blanchett in Tár dismantles woke identity politics!” screeched Breitbart) and to overlook the coolness with which Field addresses moral arbitration in the online age. A stand-off between Lydia and a Juilliard student, Max (Zethphan D Smith-Gneist), is a prickly highlight, but the arguments here go deeper than any clickbait tussle over “white male cis composers”. Lydia warns her daughter’s bully that “God is watching”, Petra peers at her mother through toy binoculars, and there are numerous shots suggesting a spectral point of view. All of which turns out to be for the good. The internet helps to expose Lydia’s predatory behaviour; it’s Google that gets her, not God.
‘Tár’ is in cinemas now.
[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]