Cate Blanchett's outstanding performance, an insightful study of human nature, and impeccable sound design combine to make Tár a singularly exceptional film.
The act of ‘separating the art from the artist' has become one of the most fiercely debated social media topics of recent years. Directed and written by Todd Field, Tár confronts the rigid connection between art and artist, exploring the intrinsic nature of the relationship and its real-world repercussions when the lines are blurred. The film opens on a New Yorker Festival interview with world-renowned musician and conductor Lydia Tár, flawlessly brought to life by Cate Blanchett. The interviewer reels off a list of Tár's seemingly endless achievements. He doesn't fawn. He doesn't flatter. But, ever so underhandedly, he does question the role of conductor as a ‘human metronome'. Tár's response – ‘you cannot start without me. I start the clock' – sums up the argument in one neat little package: how can you separate the artist from the art, when they are the beginning and the end of the art itself?
Tár's opening scene sees its namesake in her most powerful position, on the brink of releasing her autobiography and returning to Berlin, where her family and role as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic await. As the film progresses, we see Tár's position unravel as the results of previous actions catch up with her. Directly threatening a playground bully at her child's school, admonishing and humiliating a student for daring to construct his own opinions, grooming young women as prodigés, and freezing out a previous prodigé to the extent that she commits suicide are just a few examples which spring to mind. But Tár's descent from heady heights is less plot focussed than character driven. Tár touches on elements of so many topics society is currently grappling with – the treatment of women in power, cancel culture, the influence of social media – yet avoids falling into the binary arguments which typify these debates and branding Tár as a villain, despite being a distinctly unsympathetic character.
Tár's eventual downfall is ultimately a result of her hubris, the irony being that she goes out of her way to teach her Julliaird students that ‘music has a humility to it'. Nevertheless, her role as conductor sees her as the antithesis to that humility, bending the music and musicians to her will as she sees fit, lacking respect for the expected order. Nothing demonstrates this more than her grooming of young female musicians for sexual favours and offering career progression in return, something which eventually becomes a significant factor in the unravelling of her own career, marriage, and parenthood. The increasing public awareness of her involvement with these young women, in tandem with a viral clip in which she aggressively reprimands a student for their refusal to praise Bach, means Tár is stripped of her title and exiled from the life she has built for herself.
Helmed by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, the flawless use of sound in Tár cannot be overstated. It is easy to assume all sound in the film is diegetic: that is, that the sound the audience hears is exactly the same as what the characters hear. The non-diegetic underscoring is so silent, so still, that it almost feels more like a tangible atmosphere than a piece of music. But every clearing of a throat, every click of a door, every hum of an engine, has been so specifically constructed by Field, Guðnadóttir and their team of sound designers that the silence, when chosen, feels distinctly oppressive. It radiates and expands, like a bubble waiting pop: an apt allegory for Tár's increasingly fragile mental state. Any chaotic, loud or violent outbursts, in contrast, are so jarring that when the film returns to stillness and quietness the audience feels intentionally off balance, and so the cycle continues.
Tár is not a film whereby the intention is to chase answers, but rather to ask questions. Can you ever separate the art from the artist? Is the difference between right and wrong as binary as it seems? Is it really ‘cancel culture' when someone is confronted with the consequences of their own actions? The music will quieten. The screen will fade to black. But these questions remain with you long after the curtain falls.
Tár is currently running in UK cinemas.