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Film: Tar

“Tár” (2022) is not a movie I expected to like, much less watch at least 15 times in the span of about a month. I knew next to nothing about it going in; the reviews I read were favorable but described very little of the plot. From what I could tell, director Todd Field’s drama, starring the ever-fantastic Cate Blanchett, had to do with art, power, and abuse. Running across the film on DVD made me curious enough to try it.

On first viewing, “Tár” is kind of off-putting. (What the hell is up with that annoying accent mark in the title, anyway?) It’s the coldest thing I’ve seen since probably “The Shining;” Kubrickian is the best way to describe the film as a whole. Field, who hasn’t directed many movies, has made a chilly, sterile drama about a powerful woman (Blanchett, as Lydia Tár) in a position to control, manipulate and gaslight everyone around her. His camera sits back to observe the characters, their dialogue and interactions, in sometimes uncomfortably long takes that often have you wondering just what is going on here. The film puts you in an almost trance-like state, it’s so slow and analytical. This is an arthouse film in the truest sense of the term – you couldn’t imagine it shot in IMAX (but wow, I wish that it had been!). If you wanted to say that Field combines Kubrick’s rigidly intellectual aesthetic with the European stylings of, say, Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” you could, but there really is no other movie quite like “Tár.”

On second viewing, I realized I loved this movie, thought it was one of the year’s best, and each subsequent viewing has only confirmed this opinion. “Tár” is totally unique, 100-percent original, puts everything in plain view, right on the table, but remains enigmatic. It is dominated by Blanchett, who received a well-deserved Best Actress nomination. (I was pulling for her to win.) Blanchett’s Lydia Tár is a character so well-written, observed and portrayed, that I spent my entire first viewing convinced I was watching a true story, almost a documentary. I was shocked to learn that “Tár” is complete fiction. Yet it knows the world of classical music so thoroughly, and paints such a believable portrait of a brutal, selfish, conniving woman, that I thought Field had based his story on real events.

Lydia Tár is the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, one of many accolades the American superstar has to her credit, as we discover in an opening scene that amounts to a 10-minute lecture from Tár herself. In an on-stage interview with a New Yorker writer, Lydia talks about her theory behind the “glass ceiling” in classical music, humble-brags about her achievements, and slyly reveals herself to not only be the smartest person in the room but an arrogant asshole begging to be knocked down a peg or two. This movie is about how that very thing happens.

Lydia surrounds herself with sycophants, most of them (significantly) young and female. Her assistant Francesca supervises Lydia’s schedule, making sure she makes all her appointments right on time and always has everything she needs, when she needs it. Sharon, Lydia’s wife, raises their adopted daughter, Petra, almost single-handedly. One fawning admirer we don’t see, Krista Taylor, is a bit more of a problem. Lydia has not only ostracized Krista but black-balled the young woman in the music industry. Krista is in the throes of a nervous breakdown, sending threatening messages that suggest Lydia’s world is about to shatter. It does, spectacularly.

Field spends a large amount of time portraying Lydia’s everyday world. After the long opening interview, we see her interacting with another young (female) admirer, using the kind of coded language that suggests they are about to have an affair. Then we see Lydia at lunch with a powerful patron who can hardly disguise his desire to steal not only Lydia’s ideas but her very talent. She can barely suffer this fool’s inane chatter.

The next big scene, early in the movie, tells us everything we need to know about Lydia, and is one of the most fascinating moments of the year. In it, Lydia publicly humiliates a young music student who expresses contempt for J.S. Bach. (“Didn’t he sire, like, 20 kids?”) In a move that will come back to haunt her, Lydia puts the kid down, using all kinds of “non-woke” language that forces him to walk out, calling her a “fucking bitch.” He’s right, she is a fucking bitch, but she’s also right, in that kids today are far too quick to be offended.

Lydia’s problem is that she actually is the smartest person in the room and uses that fact as a bludgeon. Everyone in her orchestra is afraid of her. When she conducts, she puts her whole body into the act, making it a physical act of punishment. (Blanchett’s performance here is truly stunning.) She uses words like a bullwhip, literally shaping everyone else’s reality into something she feels comfortable in. (Her gaslighting of Sharon is truly disturbing.) We slowly discover that Lydia has been molding promising young females into sycophantic followers, then dismisses them once they’ve fulfilled their role in her personal psychodrama. The trouble is that Krista Taylor, one of those cast-off former-students-turned-lovers, won’t go away quietly. Her suicide provides the turning point of the film, the moment that Lydia shows herself to be a terrible person.

Field directs every scene with precise control, never tipping his hand. This film is coldly realistic. It seems to sympathize with Lydia even as it’s laying waste to her predatory behavior. Lydia reveals herself in small moments, as when she mocks a colleague or plots against a longtime friend. There’s a chilling moment where she threatens a small child on a playground, calling herself “Petra’s father.” The scene where she steals a subordinate’s favorite pen as she’s dismissing him from the orchestra goes down harshly. We are left asking, “Why take the guy’s pen?!”

“Tár” is the kind of movie that teaches you how to watch it. You have to sit and concentrate, because there are about three little tiny details that are so uncannily frightening that you start wondering whether something supernatural is going on. (Answer: there might be. Pay close attention and you’ll catch a direct quote from “The Blair Witch Project.” Other times, there seems to be a ghost in Lydia’s Berlin apartment.) The second time, you get more used to its rhythms, the fact that it doesn’t move fast and at times nothing seems to happen. Yet it all builds up into a picture of an awful woman who gets what is coming to her yet somehow keeps going. I don’t know whether Lydia gets what she deserves or simply finds a way to reboot/rebuild at the end. It’s a mystery I find myself watching again and again.