You don’t realize how rare repugnant women are onscreen until you meet a character as menacing and unlikeable as Cate Blanchett’s latest invention, Lydia Tár.
The protagonist of Todd Field’s Tár—which premiered today at the Venice Film Festival and hits theaters in October—is an American conductor widely seen as a generational great; an EGOT who has led just about every noteworthy orchestra around the globe. She guest lectures classes at Juilliard. Fans stop her to gush about her work.
That success has led her to an enviable industry position: She heads up the Berlin Philharmonic, has written an autobiography (titled Tár on Tár), and lends her name to a scholarship program that aims to propel more young women into conductor roles (though she’s considering widening the pool to include men too). She is thorny, yes, but rich—flying private and wearing tailor-made suits resembling those of her mostly male idols—and seemingly untouchable.
Yet there are strange ghosts from her past, and a few from her present, threatening to derail her success—specters, it seems, of her own making. In his masterful script, Field alludes to these ghosts in fleeting moments. There are smatterings of attractive and talented young women who continually surround Lydia; glances from her present lovers to potential replacements; and ceaseless emails from an old protégée desperately trying to get back in touch.
In a pivotal early scene, during her Juilliard class, Lydia encounters a student, Max, who expresses a distaste for Bach, his work, and “cis, white, male” artists in general. Max introduces themself as a “BIPOC pan-gender person,” sending Lydia on a sharp tirade against what she sees as close-mindedness. Artists, she argues, must eschew identity politics and “sublimate and obliterate” themselves instead.
Indeed, Lydia’s own fight for her position, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, is slowly losing relevance to her public brand; from her vaunted vantage, she struggles to see the struggles of others. That scene, and the opinions she spouts within it, introduces us to Tár’s compellingly ugly core; how that same tunnel vision applies to her behavior within the industry is what transforms the film into a spiraling psycho-thriller. Is Lydia Tár simply a delusional narcissist, or do the flock of former students and apprentices who eventually accuse her of being dangerously—and often sexually—manipulative have the evidence to back up their claims? In a recent interview with the Film at Lincoln Center Podcast, Blanchett described Tár—which presents her knottiest and arguably best performance to date—as a movie about ”a sort of fall from grace, a come-to-Jesus moment, and…the creative process.”
Todd Field has been quoted as saying he wouldn’t have made the film had Blanchett turned down the role, and that means something: Sixteen years have passed since Field’s last feature, Little Children, a family drama that led Kate Winslet to her fifth Oscar nomination. Since then, several of his planned works have fallen through: a Showtime TV adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity, with Daniel Craig expected to star and a script that ran more than 2,000 pages in length; there was also, in 2012, a planned political thriller cowritten with the late Joan Didion.
Whether or not you wish to see Lydia Tár as the victim of so-called cancel culture or a malevolent perpetrator of gaslighting and coercion depends entirely on your politics, personality, and how you resonate with (or are repelled by) the woman herself. What is definitive, though, is just how greatly Tár succeeds in confronting its audience with a prescient issue: how fame and concentrated power beget maniacal and violent creatures.