Tar is an exceptionally well-acted drama about a very brilliant but problematic
fictional music celebrity named Lydia Tar (hence the title). The film makes us
consider whether genius can excuse monstrous behavior. For instance, does the
unjustifiable behavior of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski cancel out the
brilliance of their work and should they be ejected from the film cannon? It is
a brave cancel culture/Me Too era film which refuses to proselytize and allows
the audience to make up their own minds about the main character and issue.
There are a few parallels between the character and actor, but not in terms of
alleged abuse; Lydia is as at the top of her game in the field of music as is
Kate Blanchett is as an actress. I cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job
in this role, and this is surely one of the most unforgettable and vital
performances of the year. I would be surprised if I saw a better performance
between now and January, and this film is also almost certain to make my top ten
film list of the year, maybe my top 5 too.
The film is a German/United States co-production, but almost the whole thing is
in English which might improve its chances in the awards races. I just hope that
English does not become the unofficial language of film. I like hearing
characters speak in their native tongues.
Todd Field is the massively talented but not particularly prolific film maker
who made Tar; although he also acts, it is only his third turn as a director in
twenty-one years. He also directed the well-received near classic films, In the
Bedroom (2001) which made great use of an ensemble cast, and Little Children
(2022) which featured a Kate Winslet performance for the ages. Field has already
received three Oscar nominations and this film which may be his most mature and
fully realized effort also seems to be Oscar bound.
The little-known supporting actors seem to have been hired for their acting
chops and versatility rather than having big names. You might recognize French
actress Noemi Merlant for her excellent work in the gorgeously, shot Portrait of
a Woman on Fire as well as the German stage actress, Nina Hoss who is perhaps
best known for her part in a memorable noir, Phoenix. She is convincing playing
Lydia’s long-suffering wife.
We gradually get to know, respect, and appreciate Lydia who commands
considerable authority. We like her initially because she is as hard on herself
as her students and she demands excellence all around. At first, she seems like
an admirable if cold human being, but gradually chinks begin to appear in her
armor, and her professional façade crumbles as her considerable character flaws
become increasingly apparent. Although she is great at her job, tar often
mistreats her significant other and like some real art gurus like the Andy
Warhol she exploits and discards her students when it suits her.
In one of the best scenes Lydia finds out that one of the other girls is
bullying her adopted daughter. Lydia confronts the girl directly and suggests
that if she does not change her behavior Lydia will get her. The viewer might
think that she went too far potentially traumatizing a much younger girl but at
the same time we can’t help but admire her gumption. I am sure lots of moms
would love to do that.
Lydia guest teaches at Juilliard and early on she also publicly admonishes and
publicly humiliates a PC student who identifies as a BIPOC transgender person
objects to listening to the cis Bach on moral grounds. He dismisses the famous
composer because he is a privileged white male hetero member of the canon and he
fathered many children that he did not support. The music seems to a secondary
concern to him after the character of the man. Tar humiliates the student and
calls him a robot. Even viewers who agree with her position might be repulsed at
the harshness of her very public response. The person that side with might be
partially generational or have to do with which side you are on in the art vs.
identity politics war.
Lydia also receives a gift of Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge, a highly sensual
book about lesbian relationship mean to enflame Tar’s desire. The gift comes
from a former member of her fellowship program. It hints of a sexual
relationship between the two, and after it was over Blanchett used her power to
ruin her career and make her unemployable.
Many members of Lydia’s profession seen to suspect or know that she has crossed
the line and had affairs with younger female musicians, even though her partner
is a member of her Berlin music community and is bound to find out. None of
these physical affairs are seen by us. But we do see emails sent from a former
lover. Even more damming a video materializes of Lydia with a young woman that
labels the woman as Lydia’s “fresh meat.” We also see Lydia harass Sharon and,
in a dream, a very young woman hugs Lydia and kisses her neck.
Lydia disrespects her wife by openly showing her attraction to a new cellist,
Olga. She finds a fake rationale to bypass her loyal assistant for an official
assistant conductor position (she claims she wants someone more experienced).
But she is taken aback when Lydia clearly prefers a male boyfriend.
Like the movie, A Streetcar Named Desire and and the TV series Breaking Bad, the film masterfully
chronicles a tragic character’s eventual and inevitable decline due to bad
choices and reprehensible behavior. Although the conclusion is kind of open
ended, viewers like me might feel an immense sense of loss because the film
implies that a person of such great accomplishments and potential may lose
everything because of equally great character flaws.
Critics have charged that in order to make Lydia Tar more sympathetic the film
purposefully leaves the details of Tar’s indiscretions with students murky or
unclear. But in real cases of harassment not everything is clear cut and it
often comes down to the word of one person against another.
Although it is not based on a true story, the film seems completely plausible
and completely realistic (I am sure there were dozens of equally abusive people
similar to her in various professions) and it's rare to see a cinematic character
as realistic, contradictory, and multidimensional as Lydia Tar.