We first hear from Lydia Tár, living legend and conductor extraordinaire, at an onstage Q&A celebrating her latest batch of achievements. During an engaging and intelligent but smugly showy answer, she uses the Hebrew word “kavanah,” meaning “intention,” to describe the almost spiritual focus with which she conducts, and the presenter remarks that “Kavanaugh,” pronounced the same, has a different connotation today, prompting the New York audience to grumble and moan in conspicuous unison. It’s an unnatural moment—an ostensible warning sign on the precipice of polemic—but thankfully unindicative of TÁR, a film that rarely loses dramatic authenticity.

The life of the inimitable Tár is meticulous and controlled. You can see it in her surroundings: in the orderly bookshelves and precisely placed paintings of a sophisticated home, in the coherent aesthetic of her immaculate outfits. Production designer Marco Bittner Rosser, who fashioned an elegant but lifeless vampire den in Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, here crafts the austere, high-society haunts of a different type of vampire—the kind that steals lifeblood through institutional power. Lydia conducts not only orchestras but careers and lives as well, taking what she pleases and rewarding those dutiful to her. Her influence is enormous, her demeanor cold, and her conduct, allegedly, monstrous.

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The extent to which Lydia abuses her power is, at first, obscured, and thus so is the story’s dramatic shape. But writer/director Todd Field, returning to the screen after 16 years, leaves hints that this portrait of a musician has yet to unhinge its jaws: a POV shot of a mysterious text exchange, an unexplained symbol or remark, the repetition of a low, thrumming vibration rumbling under scenes like an omen. Something’s bubbling beneath the surface. Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister tend to shoot wide and long, staring unblinkingly at Tár’s loaded interactions while maintaining an almost anthropological distance, as if we’re examining the uncensored behavior of the egomaniac behind the glass. Characters are framed at opposite ends of a shot, beckoning the eye to search the space between them for surreptitious details; a scene in which Lydia excoriates a conductor of color for refusing to separate great art from immoral artist is presented in a long take, giving every uncomfortable minute its full 60 seconds. It’s a case study of a dynamic, of a pattern.

That pattern sees once-distinct subplots converge into a tapestry of misconduct. As revelations unfold, Field keeps the pace prosaic and tone unsensational, emphasizing the unsettling mundanity of the compulsive abuse of power. Doing so from the abuser’s perspective allows Field to question the systems empowering her—the industry of celebrity, the mythologization of the artist—without demonizing Tár, the woman, as some embodiment of exploitation. Cate Blanchett gives the film an astonishing complexity in this regard. Her performance is one of passion, hubris, and denial, all immense and all colliding, earning our fascination without a shred of our sympathy. It’s a work of tremendous depth and dissonance that fills in the story’s final shades of grey.

The screenplay contracts as Blanchett explodes, however. The climax and conclusion lose track of the film’s prickly authenticity, ending a little pat by comparison. In addition to falling back on easy generalizations of “cancel culture,” the last bits of the last act go through the prestige drama motions: a major fallout, a small come-to-Jesus moment, an outsized expression of inner turmoil. The story wraps up too quickly and without enough friction to sustain its questions. And, oddly enough, it ends with a joke, which is consistent with the film’s dark comic streak but doesn’t stave off the feeling of petering out.

Still, TÁR is resolutely, relentlessly thoughtful, even if it can’t sustain its tour de force across two and a half hours (it’s not Blanchett’s performance, after all). If I read the film right, we should be hurrying to place Todd Field on the highest pedestal possible.

★★★★½   (4.5/5)