Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
One thing cinema has no shortage of is films about powerful people succumbing to their dark side, which of course leads to their ultimate destruction. From Citizen Kane (1941), to Raging Bull (1980) to There Will Be Blood (2007), it’s clear that dark, foreboding character studies will never go out of style. Films like these are notable for their psychological depth, moral shades of grey, and engrossing central performances. However, what makes them stand the test of time is their ability to comment on sides of the human condition which are rarely discussed. These are damaged, flawed and (in many cases) villainous characters, yet their stories provide insights we need in order to understand certain corners of humanity. Todd Field’s Tár (2022) is the latest in this long line of harrowing stories.
The film gets right to the point in its introduction of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), an American pianist, composer and the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. From minute one, we are told about her upbringing, education, career and achievements, all illustrated in a shockingly believable interview, practically convincing us that this fictional protagonist is a real person. With the groundwork neatly out of the way, we quickly get a sense of her beliefs around art, artists, music and culture. More importantly, we get a sense of her far reaching power and influence, which she uses to maintain self-fulfilling (and problematic) habits, without any resistance or repercussions. Unfortunately for Tár, her past deeds seem to be catching up with her, potentially revealing that she has used her power to take advantage of her students, colleagues and protégés.
The first thing you notice as soon as Tár starts is the breathtaking filmmaking on display. If ever there was a film made by people working at their absolute best, Tár is definitely it. With its flawless production design, striking cinematography, precise editing, artful direction, haunting score and perfect performances, it’s possible that Tár may become a new benchmark as far as pure craftsmanship is concerned. The performance aspect is particularly noteworthy, as the work done by the cast barely feels performed in the traditional sense. As is befitting of these kinds of character studies, Cate Blanchett’s turn as Lydia Tár is utterly transfixing, effortlessly creating a compelling yet terrifying presence you can never turn away from. Even when the narrative sometimes becomes emotionally disengaging, Blanchett is always there to draw our eye.
With that in mind, the emotional engagement is the main thing Tár lacks. For most of the runtime, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to feel the weight of any given scene, as we are instead just coldly observing everything that happens. This is clearly intentional, because it’s hard to imagine any viewer wanting to feel sorry for a character who abuses their power in the most pervasive and exploitative ways. Instead, the film opts to keep us at a distance, so that we may just watch, analyse and judge the characters based on what they say and do. While this is absolutely the approach needed for a story like this, we should be allowed to feel the emotions of the big moments without forcing us to care about our problematic protagonist. If we were given the opportunity to feel instead of merely observe, we would’ve been more invested, and therefore would never notice the film’s punishing length.
On the plus side, the extremely observational perspective uncovers the film’s abundance of thematic layers. Nearly every scene is brimming with social, political and cultural analysis, with some being displayed on the surface and others being purely subtext. The various dialogue exchanges throughout the script are endlessly fascinating, as every angle of every subject it raises is addressed. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the viewpoint is completely objective, given there are definite and clear stances being made on each issue. The interesting part is seeing where the characters fall on the various issues, which informs us about their flawed psychology. These sequences are the meat of the entire film, with a particularly spectacular lecture scene being the absolute standout.
Despite all of the complexities being key to what makes Tár great, it’s possible some may find the overly intellectual interactions pretentious. The precise and artful construction would also contribute to this feeling, given it does result in moments where the film breaks away from identifiable narrative structure. Consequently, this story doesn’t really feel like it’s told in three acts, instead adopting a five act structure, along with including a prelude and multiple epilogues. There’s no denying this story is packed to the gills, but it may make some feel like the film is ending long before it actually does. When the actual conclusion does occur, it may feel out of place despite being thematically and narratively appropriate.
All this adds up to a viewing experience which is incredibly perplexing. You’re immediately hooked, you’re fascinated by the character, your interest holds for a very long time, but then you may find yourself wishing for it to be over. There’s very little joy and very little energy whenever we’re not seeing musical composition, so you find yourself hating the very act of watching the film. As soon as the credits roll, you’re practically ready to write off what you’ve seen, but the moment you give the film any thought, you realise you’ve witnessed a character analysis which borders on genius. It’s a strange contradiction, but Tár just might be the best and smartest film of the year, which you may also hate.
Regardless, the result is an endlessly fascinating piece of work, made by a team of people operating at their absolute best. Not every great or iconic film is perfect (or makes for enjoyable viewing) yet they still hold up as great and iconic. It’s very possible Tár will become one of these films.
Best way to watch it: