As Tar begins to take up a recognizable pace, the traps start to reveal themselves. Lydia’s life is organized by her two supporting players, both of which happen to be played by two of the best actors from their respective countries alongside Australian dynamo Blanchett. Noemie Merlant plays Lydia’s assistant Francesca, doting and loyal but also interested in breaking into conducting herself. Nina Hoss plays Sharon, Lydia’s wife and her direct assistant in the orchestra pit, playing her violin literally in Lydia’s shadow. At the height of her power, about to conduct a piece by her idol, the gods of the art scene conspire to bring Lydia down. She condescends to a student of color during a guest lecture at Julliard. A musician who used to work with her sends her a book whose import is unclear to the viewer but ominous to Lydia. Fastidious to a fault, Lydia’s hermetic bubble is disrupted by a sick neighbor’s medical equipment. Her daughter is being bullied at school. She asks too much of Francesca when the book-sending musician gets more erratic, and Sharon smells another round of philandering from Lydia when new musician Olga (Sophie Kauer) is added to the orchestra. All these threads are pulled at the same time, unraveling Lydia’s carefully maintained life in a meltdown of delicious glory.
Tar has been unfairly shorthanded as the cancel culture movie, and while it does feature a prominent figure being laid low, that’s the only connection. The phrase cancel culture is most relevant when the idea is being criticized as a straw man phenomenon, like a person theoretically only has to make a small slipup before their career is ruined and their name destroyed. Lydia Tar doesn’t make one slipup. A dumber movie with less consideration would have the Julliard session be her downfall, as it’s immediately recognizable as a series of sins against progressivism alongside another bald statement of themes. Lydia defends the work of dead white males against a student who doesn’t want to center them in his work, and argues for the elevation of the work over the flawed individual who created it. This scene exists in the film not as Chekov’s gun on the wall, but as Lydia self-justifying her own legacy for the day when her sins are inevitably exposed. Look at what I did when I held the conductor’s wand, not when I put it down and moved through the world. When the Julliard incident is brought back up, it’s hand-waved away as a distraction, the same place as those who want to put Tar in a reductive cancel culture box.
What this film is instead is an epic psychological unraveling on pace with something like There Will Be Blood. It’s not necessarily about anything but this one fictional person, dreamt up by Field and enlivened by Blanchett. So all-encompassing is the portrayal that she could credibly be real, like Field found an interesting anecdote about a conductor and blew it out into a whole story. As the plot is gaining momentum, some turns are more understandable than others, especially regarding the various intricacies of this elite world. Tar exists wholly within Lydia’s field of vision, and there’s no interest within the film to make her have an expositional conversation that the character wouldn’t have patience for. That these sometimes mystifying scenes aren’t boring is to the film’s great credit, as the viewer can get the gist of which character is rising or falling even if the specific role of a concertmaster is unclear. What is clear is the emotional truth that Field creates, most often through the use of Haneke-esque nightmares that plague Lydia. These several interludes turn the film towards horror, and their tone bleeds into the non-dreaming parts of Tar as Lydia’s world gets more and more constricted. It all combines into a full picture of who this person is and what’s going on in her brain.
Field’s previous films were littered with Oscar nominations for his casts, but as good as Sissy Spacek is in In the Bedroom or Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children, Blanchett is incredible here. It’s a defining performance with a wide range of requirements. Lydia is self-possessed and charismatic and authoritative, but the film finds ways to reveal her self-consciousness and her pettiness and her regret. The film is not mysterious on her guilt: she did the thing(s). It also takes no pleasure in her downfall, treating it as a tragedy of human frailty and neediness. Blanchett is doing something so intricate that the viewer can feel she gets what she deserves and she suffers too much. That she stands out so starkly against Merlant and Hoss is a testament to all their abilities, like the supporting cast understands whose show this is and play down against her. The film is partly about how someone’s bad behavior implicates those around them, and Hoss especially has these looks that are loaded with doubt, theorizing how she’ll be perceived if her wife goes down. Newcomer Kauer also wows as the pretty young thing who’s much smarter than Lydia gives her credit for. Her Olga is unstuffy in a way that brightens the film and completely sells why someone like Lydia would be drawn to her.
As calculated and precise as Tar is, it’s also fun and funny in the same way the aforementioned There Will Be Blood is. Films like these are comforting in their strange ways, like the viewer quickly understands that they’re in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. Tar is made by such hands. Field’s many years in the wilderness have yielded the best work of his sparse career and an undeniable piece of cinematic brilliance. A