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Tár demands — and deserves — your full attention

Cate Blanchett stars in a tightly wound masterpiece that slices through class anxiety and power.

Cate Blanchett as an orchestra conductor, baton in hand.
Cate Blanchett stars as an orchestra conductor in Tár.
Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

To watch Tár properly requires mental recursion. The surface of each scene is perfectly legible, but the full import of what you’re watching is elusive till the end of the scene, or even the sequence. The end of the film recasts everything that’s come before it. It’s like Kierkegaard’s old saw, embodied: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Yet Tár is anything but clichéd. Not to be hyperbolic, but it might be perfect.

The titular Tár is Lydia Tár, a fearsome orchestra conductor fiercely played by Cate Blanchett. (She’s a fictional character, but you can sense a dozen real ones just beneath her skin.) She’s fought her way to the top of the profession, which in this particular case resides on the podium in front of the Berlin Philharmonic. She lives in a sleek modernist flat with her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), and their daughter, and she spends her days on the most elite circuit imaginable: chatting with New Yorker writers in front of packed crowds; rehearsing the orchestra in advance of a new season and upcoming recordings; prepping for the publication of her memoirs. Her devoted assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) by her side, she’s always on a plane or waving a baton or greeting admirers.

The world she’s constructed for herself is like a perfectly tuned violin, cooly precise. For a stringed instrument to play in tune with its orchestral neighbors, each string must be pulled to exactly the right tension — no more, no less. Too loose and you can’t draw a bow across them. Too tight, and they can snap. And sometimes (I speak from experience here) that snap can cause the musician serious injury, leaving welts or deep lacerations.

Cate Blanchett as a conductor in front of an orchestra.
Lydia Tár conducts an orchestra, and tries to keep her life as tightly wound.
Focus Features

Lydia, we slowly come to realize, reached this position of influence in a world in which imitating the lives of the men who came before her seemed like the best way to make it to the top and stay there. Her personal relationships are built atop their professional benefit to her, and her friends know it. Even her more altruistic-looking efforts — commissioning works from female composers, creating opportunities for women to enter the profession — are mainly useful insofar as they promote her, Lydia Tár, and secure her place in history. Her past is littered with not-quite-appropriate relationships with less powerful people, discarded when they pose a threat to her. Tár is the tale of a string being stretched so tightly that the bridge starts to bow and the whole thing threatens to give way.

And at its root is a deep class anxiety. The arc of Tár is of a woman terrified, in an almost subconscious way, that the ground beneath the ladder she’s climbed is going to prove shaky. Not quicksand so much as mud — the kind that spatters and cakes on your clean clothes and skin.

The most apt comparison I’ve read for Lydia was Daniel Plainview, the antihero of There Will Be Blood, a vicious oil tycoon with a finely tuned sense of resentment toward the world wherever it thwarts him. He finds himself, at the end of his days, living in a palatial estate (complete with bowling alley, site of the famous “I drink your milkshake” scene), alone and miserable.

Their lives aren’t perfect matches, but the same principle applies: that they’ve clawed their way up a mountain composed of dead and wounded bodies, and perch atop it with a shiny, composed facade. It’s only through cracks in the veneer that you can glimpse the real person. They are ruthless and bitter and brilliant. Their teeth are always on edge, their jaws always grinding. That Lydia is a woman only adds to it all; she’s not meant to have gotten here in the first place.

An image of Cate Blanchett, arms outstretched.
Tár looks incredible, too.
Focus Features

When it all starts coming apart, then, so does Lydia. Tár tackles the rough but rewarding challenge of portraying the ways that powerful people are sometimes taken down by things that, in a strict sense, aren’t really their fault. The young woman of consenting age whose relationship with Lydia went south, and then found her career heading down the tubes, too. The male graduate student angered by Lydia’s challenge to his career choices, and the video edited to make her look worse than she is. The “cancellation” driven by protesters who don’t really understand what they’re protesting against, but who aren’t exactly wrong about Lydia’s behavior, either. We aren’t asked to sympathize with Lydia, ever; Tár doesn’t think she’s the good guy. (This is not a tiresome movie about how “#MeToo has gone too far” or about the dangers of social media.) But there’s not exactly a villain in this world, either. It’s a bracing, dazzling tightrope walk, and if you feel unsettled at the end, well, then it’s done what it set out to do.

After a (much too) long absence from cinema, it’s a relief that Todd Field — whose previous films In the Bedroom and Little Children are devastating examinations of what happens when perfectly constructed realities begin to cave in — has tuned his themes so brilliantly. You can’t just half-watch Tár, your mind drifting or your phone in your hand. It demands your full attention. That’s the mark of good art, but it’s a discipline so many contemporary films aren’t willing to demand from audiences.

Which is what makes Tár so incredible. Its bookending scenes, beginning and end, are the subtlest of indicators of what Lydia must deign to do to keep herself afloat; blink, and you’ll miss it. It’s not an “easy” film, exactly. But it so richly rewards the careful viewer that you immediately want to see it again, to see what you couldn’t have known from the start.

And if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t just watch Tár; it watches you, too.

Tár opens in theaters on October 7.