TAR Review: A startlingly vivid portrayal of a flawed character
Bolstered with one of the greatest performances of all time, TAR is an audacious character study; an overpowering experience despite its tendency to overindulge in itself
TÁR is the story of a self-obsessed, narcissistic virtuoso who exploits people around her without any remorse. Among other things, the film is a meditative exploration into how guilt haunts even the most self-absorbed personalities like Lydia Tar.
Director: Todd Field
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Sophie Kauer, Mark Strong
We are introduced to the character of Lydia Tar through a thoroughly descriptive summary of all her achievements, being read out by an interviewer. The scene is cleverly designed to be in the form of an interview so we can understand the full breadth of her achievements while also seeing how she reacts to such public adulation. And the way she responds in that wonderfully stretched-out interview tells us everything we need to know about her. When asked about her various accomplishments, she immediately takes on an air of superiority and snobbily throws a thinly veiled contempt at the conventions and current state of affairs in the music industry. In the interview, she makes a point of mocking the people in the music community who have started to substitute the word Maestro with its feminine version Maestra but throughout the rest of the film, people around her keep calling her Maestra and Tar never bats an eye, shining light on her hypocrisy.
The most striking thing about Tar is undoubtedly the performance of Cate Blanchett as the titular character. With measured facial expressions, precise squinting of the eye, and with every gracious sweep of the hand, Blanchett brings Tar alive with a ferocious intensity. Even in a casual conversation, Blanchett’s Tar sweeps her hand, weaving patterns in the air, as if she is conducting the people in front of her like in an orchestra. The actor's performance is so dense with a pronounced body language that Tar’s every hand gesture is dripping with snobbery and every squint of the eye betrays her sense of superiority over those in front of her.
Aside from delivering Cate Blanchett’s intense performance, the film also explores topics like the cancel culture, exploitation in a mentor-mentee relationship, and the darker depths of Lydia Tar’s psyche. During a teaching session at the Julliard, Tar intellectually dismantles the argument of a student she disagrees with, culminating in the infuriated student storming out of the class. Apart from having one of the most gracious blocking, which pulls our focus inwards like a hypnic spiral, the scene also shows us how eloquent and methodical Tar is with expressing herself and also how proficient she is at masking her inner rage, which we get to see in the later scenes.
The bestial part of her personality is put on a jarring display in the scene where she confronts her young daughter’s bully and threatens the child with severe consequences, even going as far as silencing her from revealing the threats to the adults in her life. This propensity to silence her victims ties later in with the revelations about her sexual predation.
As the allegations against Tar start rising and her reputation and life slowly come undone, the film indulges itself in weird, sometimes allegorical imagery, to showcase her degrading mental state. She hears distant echoes of a woman in distress while jogging, she has strange dreams, and she repeatedly finds a strange pattern at different places in her house. Some theories might suggest that these are manifestations of her guilt, and bolder theories might even say that she is haunted by the ghost of a woman she wronged. Either way, these sections of the film might come off a bit overly indulgent for some.
The film excels in showing the darker side of Tar without any ambiguity, all the while religiously following her perspective. Throughout the film, despite the character being an enigmatic and entertaining presence, we know that Tar is not someone to be idolised, nor is she someone that needs our sympathy. The film lets the audience know this through subtle hints. She repeatedly uses the word ‘robot’ to define the people she disagrees with. As the film progresses she ends up using that word against a wide variety of people from her students, to her employees, to colleagues, and to those who protest against her. Through her flippant use of the word, It becomes clear that she is projecting her own insecurities about her lack of empathy to those around her. Understanding that about her personality is how we know to disconnect ourselves from Tar, even though we travel with her throughout the film because if she were to leap off the screen and meet any of us in real life, she might look down upon us—and if we dare cross her— will end up calling us a robot as well.
Even the most critically acclaimed films have failed in connecting an anti-hero with the audience without making them empathise with the character. But TÁR does it so effortlessly and that is why the film will live on in cinematic history as one of the most startlingly vivid portrayals of a flawed character. In the line of Terrence Fletcher from Whiplash and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, TÁR contributes an iconic character to film history in the form of Lydia Tar, with an undeniably memorable performance by Cate Blanchett.