Directed by: Todd Field
Distributed by: Focus Features
Written by Anna Harrison
“Cancel culture” is a phrase that, even as I write it, makes my skin crawl. Its meanings are vast: it’s a dogwhistle, it’s a way to hold people accountable, it’s just an overreaction, it’s a plague on our society, it’s not that deep. While director Todd Field, who returns after a 16-year absence, clearly has the current landscape in mind, to call “Tár” a “cancel culture movie” reduces its depth, just as any cry of cancel culture—whether condemning or upholding it—in real life inevitably squashes any complexity which may exist. There is no such easy escape in “Tár.” Its mere existence (and hefty two-and-a-half-hour plus runtime) stands in opposition to the knee-jerk reactions that “cancel culture” invokes: it is a slow, methodical unraveling of its protagonist’s life, delicately composed and responding to the lightest feather-touch, less interested in delivering a verdict than examining the woman at the center of it all: Lydia Tár, a master conductor played by master actor Cate Blanchett, whose every twitch showcases a level of technical skill few others have ever achieved.
Lydia, also, has achieved what few others have. Once Leonard Bernstein’s protégée, she now serves as the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, where she is about to finish recording a series of Mahler symphonies. She is unapologetic about her skill (she even has an EGOT), and while the classical music world is overrun with men, Lydia waves away a question about that gender disparity (posed by Adam Gopnik as himself) with one elegant gesture. Identity has been sublimated into her work, and so when a student at her Juilliard guest lecture explains that they (as a “BIPOC, pangender person,” to which Lydia affirms her own identity as a “U-Haul lesbian”) don’t like Bach on account of him being a problematic old white man, Lydia scolds them: gently at first, and then cruelly when the student pushes back. If Field paints the student as adhering to Twitter morality a bit too much, he is equally harsh on Lydia, whose outburst moves from valid to mean-spirited and in the end does nothing but give the students fodder for the future.
Her outburst is less about the student’s refusal to play Bach—though that certainly angers her—and more about their refusal to bend to her will. Conducting, as Lydia explains, is all about control. Up on that podium, she has control of the world’s most valuable commodity: time. Then there is the orchestra she rules over, and the group of intellectuals and lesser composers who run circles around her (as well as her long-suffering assistant, Francesca, played by a quiet but expressive Noémie Merlant), waiting for her to toss them a bone. Only she can control time. Only she can control the narrative. When Lydia talks, everyone should heed her words, and Field uses long, perfectly framed shots to illustrate just how well Lydia (and, by extension, Blanchett) can control a room—until she can’t.
When a former pupil named Krista commits suicide, Lydia suddenly finds herself under scrutiny amidst accusations that she might have behaved improperly. We see emails that Lydia herself sent blacklisting Krista, and ones that Krista sent to Francesca begging for help, though nothing like “predatory” is ever so baldly stated—all is left to whispers and conjectures, but the way that Lydia continuously dangles the assistant conductor position in front of Noémie or lays a hand on her shoulder, or the smiles and touches she gives new cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer, a cellist in her first major acting role and remarkably charismatic) all speak volumes, even if nothing we see goes beyond that.
At first, Lydia believes herself untouchable, protected because she draped herself in the trappings of the men who came before her (she even refers to herself as her daughter’s father in one scene where she threatens a six-year-old): once in power, she used it to get whatever—or whomever—she wanted, and no one could say no. She is, after all, the maestro, and so she can control everything, but no matter how hard Lydia tries to push back, the current keeps coming. It’s not some nebulous “cancel culture” that brings about her fall from grace, it’s Lydia’s own actions before, during, and after these accusations. Even amidst a building hubbub, Lydia flirts with Olga in front of her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss, excellent), the first violinist, but she cannot keep up the act for long as the paranoia sets in, and she begins hearing screams in the woods and the metronome in her cold, brutal house begins ticking at odd times.
As Lydia begins to lose control, Field only gains it. He has crafted this movie with as much care as she conducts her symphonies: every frame, every noise is meticulous, disciplined. Nothing is out of place even as Lydia’s own carefully crafted life beings to break at the seams, with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (the composer even gets name-dropped in-movie by Lydia) careful score and Florian Hoffmeister’s restrained cinematography piling on the sense of looming catastrophe.
The ending, though also meticulous, feels plucked from another movie. Lydia’s life has fallen apart, and so Field loosens his style, but while purposeful, the result is jarring. Maybe that’s the point (the final shot certainly knows exactly what it’s doing), but what remains after Lydia’s fall from grace is puzzling, at odds with the chilly beginning and middle. Yet is it any surprise that a film about such a puzzling character—wit and surprising warmth (Lydia pays for a chauffeur for an old mentor who has been forgotten about by everyone else; she protects her daughter with alarming fierceness) wrapped in cruelty and megalomania wrapped in unspeakable talent—and that tackles such a thorny subject refuses to fit into one box?