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‘Tár’ review: Cate Blanchett guns for an Oscar with a seismic role

A funny thing about writer-director Todd Field’s phenomenal film about a world-renowned conductor, “Tár,” is that in the lead-up to its premiere a popular Google search was “Who is Lydia Tár?”

She’s not real. But audiences have been so conditioned to expect probing musician biopics every fall that many assumed “Tár” was yet another; an upper-crust “Bohemian Rhapsody” about a celebrated maestro we’d all be more familiar with if we had the time and money to regularly attend the Berliner Philharmoniker and skim Der Spiegel. Nein! She’s fake.

movie review

Running time: 158 minutes. Rated R (some language and brief nudity.) In theaters.

Field’s extraordinarily detailed, start-to-finish exhilarating “Tár,” however, might convince you otherwise by the end. 

Honestly, I fully believed she existed after about five minutes, when Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) — the world’s most celebrated conductor — sits down for a ticketed New Yorker talk in Manhattan. The mood, questions and answers are a mirror image of how those pretentious subscriber events really are. It’s spooky.

In an assuredly deep voice, like Elizabeth Holmes’, Tár discusses the influence of her mentor Leonard Bernstein (he was, of course, real) and her five years spent studying in Africa; she poetically explains the importance of time on conducting a piece of music. The scene borders on satirical, but those pinky-out affairs always do.

Cate Blanchett is masterful as a famous conductor in "Tar."
©Focus Features/Courtesy Everet

And the layers never let up. Field relishes in specifics: board rooms, blind auditions, Juilliard master classes, Le Bernadin lunches with donors, emails to conductors Riccardo Muti and Gustavo Dudamel. Rather than reality becoming banal, however, the film spins a terrifying and claustrophobic web.

“Tár” is not a slice-of-life story about the classical music world, but a thriller rooted in reality about how steep and crushing the fall can be for culture figures we’ve turned into golden gods. One day you’re on posters at the airport, the next you vanish.

At her height, she’s a celebrity as principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and lives in Germany with her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), the orchestra’s first-chair violinist, and little daughter. Lydia’s home life, though, is a dish of spinach she pushes off to the side in favor of losing herself to music and doing whatever it takes, with Shakespearean gusto, to retain power. Tár is a supremely gifted monster.

Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) leads the Berliner Philharmoniker.
©Focus Features/Courtesy Everet

The people around the conductor — her wife, assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) and Berlin predecessor — are both loves and leeches. They protect her and use her at the same time. After reading the manuscript of her memoir “Tár on Tár” (hilarious), a retired musician hands her a beautiful card praising it. She emotionally thanks him, and he clarifies, “It’s a quote for the book jacket.” 

As past failings come to light, and her carefully maintained shield begins to crumble, Tár spirals into paranoia and Field’s tell-tale movie closes in on us, too. Wisely taking morality out of the plot, the director never lets us see first-hand her indiscretions that have been whispered about (you can probably guess what they are) or even confirms them, and he doesn’t judge her one way or another. We spend the entire film in her head.

Tar's life spirals into paranoia.
©Focus Features/Courtesy Everet

Blanchett, a shoo-in for Best Actress unless Michelle Williams hires a hitman, excels in hypnotic-eyed parts like Tár. (See: “Blue Jasmine” and “Carol.”) Too often in the past, though, the actress has been subsumed by her own ethereal aura, leaning on freaky stares and that Galadriel voice to stir us up. This is much deeper work from her with an absorbing peaks-and-valleys journey and honest emotion. The match of larger-than-life actress to larger-than-life role is perfection.

The actress may be just 53, but Tár is already Blanchett’s Lear.