Producers: Alexandra Milchan, Scott Lambert and Todd Field   Director: Todd Field  Screenplay: Todd Field    Cast: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong, Sylvia Flote, Adam Gopnik, Mila Bogojevic, Zethphan Smith-Gneist, Dorothea Plans Casal, Fabian Dirr, Sydney Lemmon and Lydia Schamschula   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: B+

Cate Blanchett brings such ferocity to the role of Lydia Tár, the symphonic conductor who’s the protagonist of Todd Field’s third feature (his first in sixteen years), that her brilliance may overshadow just how controversial the film is.  “Tár” is a portrait of a prominent person who becomes the victim of so-called cancel culture, and while it doesn’t shy from depicting her arrogant sense of entitlement, it’s not unsympathetic to her plight, the complete circumstances of which are kept deliberately vague.  That should make it a magnet for debate.

Or would, if it weren’t set in so rarefied a milieu that the vast majority of viewers will have trouble catching all the intricacies and allusions in Field’s uncompromisingly detail-oriented script, which could make many eyes glaze over.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation.  In fact, one has to be amazed at the film’s near-fanatical devotion to the minutiae of the world of classical music and its devotees.  The combination of sophistication and smugness most outsiders perceive in it is captured with exceptional sharpness, and the name-dropping is sometimes like a test (even if you recognize Marin Alsop, will you know Antonia Brico?).  The sense of insularity can be intimidating.  But anyone willing to endure it (or is familiar enough with it to appreciate—even swoon over—the degree of accuracy) should find “Tár” compelling and thought-provoking, even if its point of view isn’t always clear (or, depending on how you interpret it, acceptable).   

Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is the chief conductor/artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s premier ensembles.  Her impressive résumé is summarized in a carefully contrived interview before an adoring audience, conducted by Adam Gopnik as her devoted assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) looks on, mouthing the pre-written words. (Lacking is the actuality of her lowly origin, since she’s created a persona to escape it.) One of the matters touched on is the paucity of female conductors; much is also made of Lydia’s forthcoming performance of the Mahler Fifth Symphony, which will be recorded live and complete her survey of his symphonies on DGG, the label that also released the final recordings of them by her mentor Leonard Bernstein.

Field and Blanchett revel in the rehearsal scenes of the Mahler, which showcase Tár’s obsession over pacing and expression. (When admonishing the orchestra over a sluggish tempo in the second movement, she cattily snaps, “Less Visconti.”)  They also demonstrate that Blanchett took podium technique seriously—the comparison to, say, the ludicrous arm-swinging of Rex Harrison in “Unfaithfully Yours” or Yul Brynner in “Once More, With Feeling” is like night and day—though it’s clearly of the histrionic Bernstein school.  There’s even a snicker-inducing interruption when she’s shown puzzling over the best pose to feature on the cover of the CD.

But her attitude toward Francesca can be dismissive, and she’s at the point of abruptly removing the orchestra’s long-time assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner)—an appointee of her predecessor at the Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover)—from his post.  At a Juilliard master class she also delivers a stinging dressing-down of Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a nervous student identifying as “BIPOC pangender” who admits to “not being into” J.S. Bach because he considers the composer a misogynist dead white male.  Of course the encounter—choreographed beautifully by Field, Blanchett and Smith-Gneist in Florian Hoffmeister’s fluid camerawork—is captured on another student’s phone and will reappear later, edited to appear even worse than it was, on social media.

Lydia’s treatment of others blends her professional and personal lives.  She’s married to Sharon (Nina Hoss), the concertmaster of the Philharmonic, and they have an adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), of whom she is fiercely protective, even threatening a classmate who’s been bullying her.  Yet her interest in younger women is apparently unabated.  There’s a needling suggestion of something between her and Francesca in their past, and she’s being stalked by a former student, Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), who keeps bombarding her with e-mails and has sent her a book about a woman’s former lover who attempts suicide, which she tears up in a rage.  (Lydia has, meanwhile, been sabotaging the girl’s career with less-than-glowing recommendations.)  Now she’s developed an obsessive interest in Olga (Sophie Kauer), a talented young cellist on trial in the orchestra, even going so far as to finagle the inclusion of her specialty, the Elgar concerto, in the program with the Mahler as a potential showcase for her.

(Spoiler Alert!  The following discloses turns in the film’s last act.  Read on at your own discretion.)

Everything collapses when Taylor does commit suicide and accusations about their relationship, and Lydia’s role in her death, emerge.  So does the edited version of the Juilliard class.  In conversation Andris offhandedly mentions the cases of James Levine and Charles Dutoit, dismissing them cavalierly with a comparison to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s treatment in post-war Germany. 

But the damage is done.  At this point Monika Willi’s editing, until now smoothly paced, becomes more energetic and rugged (the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir also revs up). Tár is dismissed from her post, but her time with the Philharmonic is not over.  When Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), a former friend and aspiring conductor, is chosen to replace her at the Mahler concert, she refuses to take the insult lying down.  (Surely Elliot’s surname is a cheeky reference to Gilbert, the amateur who used his wealth to conduct—and record, twice—the piece with which he was obsessed, none other than Mahler’s Second.)  The film closes with a revelation that frankly, given her apparent wealth, strains credulity—her going into exile in Southeast Asia, where she’s last seen conducting an orchestra in a movie score accompanying a screening of some sort of fantasy piece before an audience of cosplaying fans.

Visually elegant—Marc Bittner Rosser’s production design and Bina Daigeler’s costumes are silkily seductive—“Tár” is intentionally oblique about the background to Lydia’s downfall: Field presents everything from her perspective, leaving the viewer to hypothesize about what actually happened between Lydia and Krista, or Lydia and Francesca, and as the episode with Max shows, her detractors are prone to exaggeration.  Nor is her relationship with Olga one of a dominating authority figure abusing a helpless underling—and one can hardly imagine such a situation ever having existed with Sharon.  The result is a portrait that demands that the viewer decide whether she’s more villain or victim, or as much one as the other, and to consider whether similar ambiguity exists in actual cases of public “cancellation.”

It also leads to questions about works of art in general—should they be judged on the basis of the character of their creators, as Max seems to suggest?  The music of Wagner was boycotted in Israel for many decades.  Should accusations of pederasty against Schubert oblige us to stop listening to his music?  And the issue extends beyond composers.  What of painters, sculptors, novelists, playwrights, many of whom lived very suspicious lives?  Or of actors like Kevin Spacey, directors like Bryan Singer, or producers like Harvey Weinstein?  Are all the pictures they had a hand in making now prohibited viewing?  Even “Tár” itself could be the subject of a boycott on the grounds that it can be taken as a defense of abusers.

So it’s courageous of Field to take on the whole business of cancel culture, even if he oh so dexterously sidesteps some of the central issues (by making the protagonist a woman, first of all).    While one can express doubts about the way he’s done so, or—as some will—condemn the side they see him as having come down on, it’s hard to deny that his film, despite its nearly three-hour length, is an absorbing, masterfully made if troubling treatment of a timely and provocative subject, anchored by another magisterial Blanchett performance.