Hello Kweens and Kings. This is a review for Tar. Tar is a drama film directed by Todd Field. It follows the story of a fictional, world-renowned, orchestral conductor named Lydia Tar. We follow Lydia Tar’s story as a person immersed in high society, while she pursues personal ambition and juggles complex interpersonal relationships. I loved this movie. I’d consider it an easy favorite for the year. They don’t really make movies like Tar anymore so I’d highly recommend you check it out while you can. There are three things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about how it immerses you into its world. I want to talk about the deviations from the film’s established tone. Finally, I want to talk about its lack of commentary.
Tar has had an interesting journey to make it to public release. The film is directed by Todd Field, who was once a big up-and-coming director in Hollywood back in 2001 when his debut feature film In the Bedroom made $40 million dollars and attracted multiple academy award nominations including Best Picture. He had a follow-up project in 2006 called Little Children which garnered its own academy award nominations, but it failed to make its money back and didn’t reach the same level of success. After that, Field found himself in an extended dry spell. He pursued a number of projects including a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s renowned novel Blood Meridian – a project often considered unfilmable. He also spent multiple years on a miniseries starring Daniel Craig which was pitched to Showtime as the network’s gamble to enter the streaming wars, but they eventually got cold feet and killed the project. By the time Field started thinking about Tar, he had gone through six different projects that were pitched, accepted, but inevitably killed over the course of more than a decade. As a result, Field hasn’t made a movie in 16 years.
Despite the gap in his filmography, Tar has the confidence of a filmmaker who truly understands the craft and it is interesting to revisit Field’s previous films to see how similar they are to Tar. His prior work is especially unique to revisit now because his first two films were emblematic of the best things about 2000s-era filmmaking. It was an era that had glimmers of incredible potential. Filmmakers active in this era had grown up with the artistry of the 70s, the pseudo propaganda of the 80s, and the needless edginess of the 90s, so they were uniquely positioned to understand the full breadth of the artform’s potential and make their own contributions encompassing all of its complexity. As much as 2000s era film gets criticized for being neoliberal cringe, it is incredible to reflect on how many mainstream films from this decade were so densely complex while being commercially successful. Films like Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brokeback Mountain, Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Synecdoche New York, and many others that went far beyond traditional storytelling. These movies were uniquely devoid of the rah-rah moments you’d expect from mainstream film – largely influenced by filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis, Rob Reiner, and of course Steven Spielberg – where there’s a clear indication the audience is supposed to laugh or cheer at the predefined moments. The 2000s had films willing to let audiences simmer in uncertainty, even going so far as to leave them with that uncertainty through to the film’s conclusion. This wasn’t out of a desire to “subvert” expectations, but rather to depict human life in the 21st century as honestly as possible – which often resulted in loose threads or ambiguous endings. Compared to the sterile films churned out by studios today, the films of the 2000s are overflowing with complex emotions and sincere attempts to achieve new understanding of the human experience. Perhaps no film better represents this shift in the artform’s approach then Field’s first film In the Bedroom.
In the Bedroom is about an unthinkable family tragedy – or at least it felt unthinkable in 2001 but that was before the internet exposed us to every horrible thing that’s ever happened. It is a remarkable film because it surprises the audience by frontloading the story with the tragedy in the first half hour. You come to understand the real story of this film is how the family reacts to a senseless tragedy. This was a distinct creative decision at the time, because typically movies would utilize a tragedy as the climax of the story and end quickly thereafter. Movies like My Girl, Boys Don’t Cry, or Pay it Forward are good examples of this approach. By comparison, In the Bedroom is confident in lingering with the dissatisfying outrage of injustice. It explores how different characters react to that injustice. It focused on an undeniable reality of human experience – one where senseless tragedy occurs and there is no Hollywood ending to save you from it. In the context of viewing film as our culture’s legacy of reality, the 2000s had signs that the artform was returning to the unedited rawness of prior eras – such as the 1970s. Of course, the 2000s as a decade started with a world-altering event that shattered our illusion of comfort and safety, which may be why there was a real appetite for film to swing back to being a fearless exploration of all facets of life. Prior to 2001, it seemed like our culture had convinced everyone the terrors of life were so distant and unimaginable, it was offensive to create them in filmmaking. Because for many that was the only way they would be exposed to them at all. But now through national security threat, 24-hour cable news, and the proliferation of the internet, the tragedy of life was undeniable and people suddenly had an interest to understand it all.
Since that decade, I think film has swung back to being an entertainment medium for escapism rather than an empathetic exploration of life. It could be due to the 2008 financial crisis which we’ve never really recovered from. Or it could be that’s when Marvel films started making billions of dollars. Or maybe both. Either way, this shift in the medium’s purpose over the past 15 years is why Tar feels so novel in today’s landscape. Because it’s guided by a director who has practically been in a cryochamber this whole time. He’s the perfect artist for this film, because his prior work has prepared him to make Tar such a fascinating film.
Tar has a clear premise, but I genuinely believe you are robbing yourself of the true experience if you get a brief synopsis of what it’s about. In the same way that In the Bedroom is about the response to an event – rather than the event itself – your experience watching Tar can be tarnished if you go into it with too many expectations. It is accurate to say this film is like a character study for the fictional orchestral conductor Lydia Tar. She exists in a high-status world of conducting classical music around the world. Most of her work is done in the fictional symphony of Berlin but she trots around Europe as well as New York pursuing a new passion project. The film eventually settles on a tangible conflict, but one of the best things about Tar is the experience of getting to that point.
Immersion into the world
My first emotion watching Tar was a kind of anxious bewilderment. The very first scene of this movie is the main character Lydia Tar being interviewed on stage by the New Yorker magazine. It’s kind of a TED Talk, live podcast, setup where the host is asking Lydia these pretty niche questions about the art of conducting orchestras. She mentions different historical figures, musical movements throughout the eras, and specific pieces or specific musicians in orchestras that inspired her fictional career. I feel like I’m pretty well-versed in a lot of different interests, but I didn’t recognize any of the names Lydia refers to so casually. I felt very lost in the conversation, but I assumed it was a scene that was supposed to establish the world and her status but then move on. But, I was wrong. This scene goes on for maybe five minutes and as far as I can tell there’s no subtext or secondary goal accomplished with this introduction other than dunking the audience into the deep end of Lydia’s world. I felt like I had to pay extra close attention to catch-up with the film and even with that mindset I thought I was missing maybe 70 percent of all the information being conveyed to me. What I found fascinating about this experience is it wasn’t frustrating. It felt thrilling. It felt like I was getting an opportunity to submerge myself in this world I would otherwise have no access point to whatsoever. I liked that the movie was confident in my ability to adapt to its environment without doling out every important detail I needed to know through exposition. That became more evident when I realized at no point was I ever punished for my unfamiliarity with Lydia’s world.
Field has expressed in interviews that he wanted the world of Tar to be a backdrop – an environment where the specifics are unimportant. His goal was to make a movie that was drenched in power dynamics. Specifically, one that appeared pristine, but was truly made-up of transactional relationships and high-stakes competition. Field has said the movie didn’t need to be in the musical world and could’ve worked just as well in an architectural firm or a multinational corporation. Which means if you’re thinking “Well, I don’t care about classical music, so I won’t like Tar,” that’s really not the point of the movie. That fact is obvious in the film because it doesn’t try to entice you through musical trivia. Instead, we’re practically guarded from the obtuse details of the world because for the first half of this story our draw to the film is the scintillating presence of Lydia Tar as played by Cate Blanchett.
This is a character who is so fiercely passionate about her craft she makes every moment spent with her interesting. We’re drawn to the zeal she has for the artform more so than the specifics of whatever she’s talking about. We yearn to learn what her life looks like outside of her art because we want to understand: how does someone like this exist? Do they have a life outside of their craft? Is it a life any of us would aspire to? With this in mind, the opening scene is actually a genius decision for drawing us into the appeal of the film. Our first introduction to Lydia Tar is a list of all of her accolades, followed by an uninterrupted back-and-forth exchange showcasing the depth of her knowledge of this highly competitive artform. Seeing her clear mastery of this art inspires a desire to understand her character. Artists with this level of passion and success are innately fascinating. They are the weirdos in society that somehow ended with an obsession that led to an impressive display of human ability. We want to know how they got that way. In the same way people marvel at how Albert Einstein was so smart, or how Bach was so prolific, or how Shakespeare created so many classics. We want to understand how Lydia Tar became the most renowned female conductor. That fascination for figures like Lydia Tar is later manipulated by the film in establishing its central conflict, but I’ll leave you to discover how that unfolds. It is an early triumph of this film that a fictional character can be so fascinating and it is a testament to the film’s excellent writing and salient narrative that Lydia feels like a real person.
Our connection to Lydia gives us a guide to the high-status musical world, but it’s also worth noting how effective the film is at introducing a spree of complex characters and relationships with surprising efficiency. Lydia’s life is made-up of assistants, colleagues, relationships, and a closet with some skeletons. We learn all this about her without ever falling into an illusion-breaking scene of exposition where someone inelegantly states their name and relationship to Lydia. Instead, we’re exposed to each element of her life as if we were a fly on the wall. Through consistent exposure we find ourselves gaining a complete understanding of what Lydia’s world entails. The people she relies on, her true passions, her vulnerabilities, and the uncertainties that drive her passion. The closest thing I can compare it to is Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, where I had a similar experience of feeling like I had to play catch-up for much of the film but at some point it all clicked. Tar pulls the same trick but with even greater deftness. I never perceived the moment I had fully grappled the film’s circumstance because whenever that point occurred was the exact moment that it introduced new elements to keep me engaged.
These new elements are what I refer to as the film’s “deviations.” Tar has a clean filmic style. You’ll become familiar with it fairly quick because it is standard and inoffensive. It’s pretty close to textbook classical filmmaking. There are no jarring edits, or overtly artistic camera angles. It’s pretty traditional for the most part – with the exception of a ludicrously long one-take early-on that I actually found to be distracting in the moment, but I later understood why they shot it that way. The point is, there are no curve balls with Tar’s filmmaking… until there are.
A subplot of Tar is Lydia pursuing a passion project which generates a great deal of stress due to her ambition not always being matched by the vision of her colleagues or the abilities of her orchestra. It’s not like she goes full Whiplash at any point, but – as stated in the previous section – this is a world made-up of power dynamics. Navigating those dynamics can be stressful, especially if you have interpersonal relationships mixed into the balance.
We understand Lydia is under a lot of stress because we see a number of dream sequences that are truly the perfect mix of believable and hauntingly dissonant. The dials of dream logic are turned up just a tad so when we experience them in real-time they feel like another ordinary scene in Lydia’s life, but in retrospect we understand them as the nightmares they really are. I’m genuinely really impressed at how Field managed to pull these sequences off. Dream sequences are fodder for directors who want to indulge in a special effects budget, but that’s not the case here. There’s a clear sense of restraint to maximize the haunting surrealness of these scenes. No matter how many times they came on screen I could never predict when we were in the middle of one. Their unpredictability destabilized my confidence of reality and the dream world, which I think mirrored the discomfort Lydia felt by experiencing these dreams first-hand. With that in mind, I want to state clearly this movie isn’t one of those trippy films where reality starts to unwind for the main character. These sequences are meant to color the state of Lydia’s mind, not to takeover the narrative and become a kaleidoscope of special effects. They are different from the majority of the film and that’s what makes them effective.
Speaking of which, another deviation from the film’s clean style is its use of clearly identifiable mise-en-scene motifs. If you’re not a film nerd, mise-en-scene is a French term that literally means “the action of putting on the stage” which translates to the visual elements of a scene. Everything from the lighting, the colors, the costume design, the framing, the placement of actors, and etc. all of those are examples of mise-en-scene. A lot of arthouse films rely on mise-en-scene to convey their point and a lot of movies from before 1977 heavily deployed it, but it’s more of a decorative for mainstreaming filmmaking. It hasn’t been the norm for several decades – I think largely because its elitist and isolating to mainstream audiences – but you’ll still see nonvital uses of it in various films. The one that stuck out the most to me in Tar is the presence of mirrors in the film. It took me a bit to notice, but there must be at least half a dozen shots of Lydia through a mirror. I’m not certain what the intended meaning was but that example made me consider the composition of the environments a lot more and I think there was quite a bit of consideration to how each setting looks.
The significance of the environment becomes apparent when the last act of the film presents a shift in location. The choice of where the location switches to and how it accentuates the differences between where Lydia has spent most of her life was incredibly effective at creating the sense of displacement in you as an audience member that undoubtedly matches the discomfort Lydia is experiencing in the story. That example made me reflect on other environmental changes in the film such as the varying homes Lydia spends her time in. One is a modern apartment that feels showy and posh, another is defined by massive slabs of cold concrete, and a final one that looks nice compared to any other home shown in a movie but in the context of the other two comes across as crummy and rundown. These creative decisions made me excited to rewatch the film because it was clear there was more to extract from it. It’s a dense film with a lot to discover and connect with.
Lack of commentary on events
Which brings me to the best thing about Tar – it’s commitment to letting the audience decide how they feel about the events of the narrative. As I mentioned previously, Field has said he wanted Tar to be about transactional relationships and power dynamics. This description could be applied to many different industries and businesses in the modern world so it’s clear this story is meant to be relatable to everyone and not just the elites who know anything about orchestral music. Combined with that desire to be relatable is a desire to present the characters as complex – driven by the fact they are flawed human beings entrenched in a system that has no incentives for rooting out immoral behavior. The goal is not to decide who the good guys and bad guys are in this story, but rather to present a reality of the world today as honestly as possible. The film doesn’t have a clear agenda other than committing a fictional representation of real life to permanent record of filmmaking.
Of course, the talking point for many people will be trying to figure out what the audience should think about Lydia, but I think the film did a great job at making her character complex. She is an obvious bad actor in the system, but if you’re paying attention you can figure out how she only got to her position because of transactional relationships people initiated with her in the past. I believe Blanchett said in an interview prior to the film’s release that what fascinated her about the character was the fact she lives with an expectation that everyone wants something from her. Lydia has no true relationships – or at the very least she can’t expect relationships to be genuine. Her stardom is so powerful, it’s not an unsafe assumption to believe every friend or colleague is thinking about their career more than about the person that is Lydia Tar. It’s not unreasonable to conclude Lydia’s response to this ever-present transactionalism is to approach her own relationships as transactional. If she’s going to be used by others, she’s going to use them for her own purposes. And for what it’s worth, I think there’s a solid argument that whoever is “used” by Lydia in this film is aware of their position and they actively encourage it because it benefits them. To me, this suggests the real villain of film is the environment the characters exist in. So, the real question is how much control do individuals within a system have to alter that environment and how fair is it to crucify one individual who isn’t significantly different from the entire community. And again, the point of this film is to present a reality of the world that feels truthful. It’s not meant to be applied as a metaphor for some other real-world event. It is its own event to allow audience members to really dig into the truth contained in this story – if there is any – and have conversations about the film service the understanding we gain for reality.
I found the film’s invitation for multiple interpretations to be absolutely thrilling. Especially in the context of the modern filmmaking environment where that is so rare or even rejected. I think this is a film that I will be thinking about for a long time, and I haven’t been able to say that about a movie for a while. Or at least it feels that way.
My greatest desire for any film is that it gives me something to think about. A great film for me is one that skillfully uses a fictional narrative to illuminate truths about reality. If a film accomplishes this then it has become more than what people associate film to be. It’s not entertainment, it is a storytelling mechanism to talk about some of the most important things in existence. It doesn’t always have to be highfalutin and philosophical. It can be very narrow like how our relationship with celebrity and stardom creates an immoral environment.
With that in mind, I would give Tar a 5 out of 5. I loved the experience of discovering this film’s world and discovering Lydia Tar’s character. The execution and presentation of Lydia’s experience is full of deeply affecting film techniques and complex ambiguities that invite considered interpretation. It’s also a movie that allows for extended discussion about its events that inevitably bleed into conversations about the real world and some of the most difficult questions for our culture today. I cannot ask for anything more from a film than all of that. This is really one of the strongest films this year, potentially my favorite of the year. I think that’s really saying a lot because it’s been a very strong year for movies in general. Tar has a limited release, but I strongly suggest you do what you can to seek it out. They don’t make movies like this anymore and it is a real gift of a film that should not go unappreciated.