That world, in Lydia’s case, is classical music, a rarefied universe of transcendence and transaction that comes to hushed, high-stakes life in the hands of writer-director Todd Field. We meet Lydia — a renowned composer-conductor who was the protegee of Leonard Bernstein, who bestrides the Berlin Philharmonic like a sleek colossus and who has just written her memoir “Tár on Tár” — while she’s being interviewed at the New Yorker festival by the magazine’s culture writer Adam Gopnik. In an almost surreally long, real-time sequence, Gopnik (playing himself) tosses out learned questions that Lydia parries with casual brilliance, dissecting art, time, gendered language and the correct interpretation of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with erudite, offhand brio. With that single scene, Field conveys volumes of information about his protagonist, but also his bona fides as a first-class world builder: This is an environment he understands down to the last meticulously placed name-drop of Marin Alsop or Nan Talese.
It’s also an environment that, for its outward veneer of cosmopolitan civility, roils with political scheming, sexual power plays and brazen ambition. As Lydia goes about her days — meeting with a dilettante-ish patron (Mark Strong), being interviewed by a star-struck journalist, leading a master class at Juilliard — her facade never cracks. She oversees the tailoring of her suits — copied from those worn by her male heroes — with the same ferocious perfectionism and withering contempt for complacency that she brings to the vinyl pressings she’s making for Deutsche Grammophon.
Lydia is so impressively competent, the social space she moves in so stylish and discrete, that it has no option but to come crashing down. “Tár” is an anatomy of that inevitable descent, prompted by an email to Lydia’s assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) from a former student that metastasizes into a personal and professional crisis of operatic proportions. Whether she’s mentoring younger musicians, “reading the tea leaves” or a composer’s emotional intent, or visiting eastern Peru to make field recordings, it turns out that Lydia’s business is essentially extractive.
Appropriately enough, Field’s script possesses its own musicality: He creates rapturous curlicues of heady dialogue that on its surface explores the nuances of post-#MeToo standards of workplace behavior and what has come to be known as cancel culture. Those thematic elements give “Tár” its frissons of resonance and ambiguity, with Lydia making a persuasive case for separating art from the artist. At Juilliard, she admits that as a “U-Haul lesbian,” she has little use for “ol’ Ludwig.” (The fundamental question, she insists, is, “Can music by old white men exalt us?”) When she’s finally confronted with her own infractions, what were abstract arguments become increasingly germane, and it becomes clear that what we think we’re watching — an illustrious career brought low by bad behavior, the twist being that the malefactor is a woman — is something else entirely.
That something is more interior, more chaotic and in many ways more disturbing, and it’s exquisitely limned by Field, who doles out information with tensely judicious restraint. No sooner are we ensconced in the soothing world that Lydia edgily inhabits than we discover that all those nervous twitches and superstitions aren’t the mannerisms of an egocentric artist. They’re talismans, deployed to fend off disorder and a creeping dread that, when it arrives, overmatches even Lydia’s lacerating ego and icy self-control.
This makes “Tár” sound grim, which it isn’t. Field has made a film about exploitation and self-loathing and compulsion, but with an extravagant eye for beauty and surface polish that makes it deeply pleasurable to watch. It would be enjoyable enough simply to behold Blanchett have her way with a role that she slips on with the grace and familiarity of one of Lydia’s bespoke suits. But Field has surrounded her with supporting performances that are just as alert, especially Nina Hoss’s turn as Sharon, Lydia’s patient but reflexively wary partner. Together with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, Field films “Tár” in reassuring neutrals, his palette favoring soft grays and understated beiges. Much of the film plays out in silence — the musical score is composed by Hildur Gudnadóttir, who’s also name-checked by Lydia — a choice that emphasizes Lydia’s own hypersensitivity to the ambient sounds that constantly threaten to engulf her.
Then there’s the humor, which is so sly that it seems to operate on a frequency all its own. That Nan Talese line, for example, is both tonally perfect and hilarious, as are tossed-off asides about Clara Zetkin, NPR and the fact that Lydia’s dazzled young interviewer went to Smith. Late in the film, when a neighbor stops by Lydia’s studio to complain about the noise she’s making, she initially misunderstands, flashing a camera-ready smile and enthusing with fake modesty, “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
By far “Tár’s” best joke is saved for last, when Field speeds up the metronome and sends Lydia on a dizzying spiral that takes her far from Berlin, in a place where personal, professional and aesthetic reckoning land like a dissonant chord. The moral of the story seems simple enough: Keep it in your pants, boys and girls, lest you wind up in what could easily pass for sheer hell.
R. At area theaters. Contains some strong language and brief nudity. 153 minutes.