It's hard to define what we mean by "genius". There are a number of different definitions listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, ranging from what one would expect: "A person's natural aptitude for, or inclination towards, a specified thing or action," to something more ethereal and primal: "A supernatural being, and related senses". It has become one of those words, like "masterpiece," or: "classic," that we use freely in a number of contexts without considering the weight behind these words. What truly makes something a masterpiece? What is a "classic"? How do we know if someone is a genius? The problem is that these words extend further than the work or person being described, easily excusing any aspects of that work or person that sullies the notion of their perfection. In the case of a work, it can suggest that it is beyond criticism. In the case of a person, it is that they are beyond reproach. We excuse the mistakes of geniuses because they are a genius, a kind of "supernatural being", and the laws of human nature, by extension, should not apply to them.
This is, of course, bullshit. Artistic expression is not an excuse for any kind of misdemeanour, no matter the stature of the artist or the quality of the art. And yet, not just within the arts but within all fields, "genius" can be used as just such an excuse. Within the arts, a field that exists within the ephemeral and indefinable, it is perhaps the easiest to get away with it. If someone was hurt by someone else in the pursuit of pure artistic expression, then that is acceptable collateral. In my time as a practising artist in the theatre, this is something I've seen ingrained, not just in my peers, but in myself, that to suffer is to be an artist. It is one thing to choose to suffer. It is another to choose to cause suffering in others.
This question of the "cost of art" has been at the forefront of our minds these last few years, as finally, figures of power and influence within many fields - but particularly the arts - have been made accountable for their actions. And yet, picking the few bad apples from the tree doesn't identify the rot within the tree itself. This idea that a genius deserves to get away with anything is so deeply ingrained in the ecology of the arts that to fully remove it seems almost impossible, but you can't start that process without realising how deep the rot goes.
Which brings me to 'Tár', the long-awaited return of acclaimed writer/director Todd Field. It's been 22 years since his beloved debut 'In the Bedroom' (2001) heralded his transition from acting to directing, and 16 years since his acclaimed follow-up 'Little Children' (2006). We've waited a long time for his third feature, a monolithic tome of a film of meticulous construction, built around just such a figure of genius. His protagonist/antagonist/supernatural being, legendary conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, 'Carol') is a fictitious creation, but within the film he places her within a lineage of acclaimed conductors that identify her stature within the context of the film but also how complicated that status is. Field, one of the most exciting filmmakers of his generation whose absence from screens made him a kind of mysterious legend in his own right, has something to say about the nature of genius, and he isn't interested in any kind of moral simplicity.
Before we even meet her, we're given a lengthy introduction to Tár's achievements, a list so extensive as to slip into the absurd. And this is an important note that Field strikes very early on - this film and its central figure, operatic and melodramatic and gigantic, will sit between the stately and the ridiculous. Telling us that Lydia Tár has an EGOT might not sound like the most riotous of jokes, but there's a black humour to it nonetheless that slowly dawns on you the more you think about it. It's part of the genius of not just the filmmaking, but Blanchett's performance, that there's always a twinkle in its eye, telling us that this is all a bit preposterous.
We follow Tár as she prepares to conquer another milestone, completing her cycle of recordings of Mahler's symphonies with his iconic 5th Symphony, the Everest for any conductor. As well as preparing for this momentous recording, she has a new book coming out, responsibilities as maestro of the Berlin Symphony and head of an organisation supporting young female conductors, all the while maintaining her marriage to the symphony's first violin Sharon (Nadia Hoss, 'Phoenix') and their daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). 'Tár' moves meticulously through these moments, and we listen to Tár pontificate on the nature of art, the sacrifices it requires, how music connects with the infinite, but bubbling away in the background is a sense that something is awry. It's almost as if Tár is being haunted or hunted by something, a threatening force that will take her down in her prime. In truth, Tár's position as the hunted is a reversal of roles. She may be the prey now, but that is only in retribution for her previous and continuing role as predator.
It would have been easy for Field to paint his fictional figure as a monster, strip away the idea of her genius as having any bearing on her behaviour and focus instead on her downfall. In the wider discussion of the crimes committed in the name of genius and art though, this isn't the most useful approach. What we struggle with, especially in the aftermath of realising the terrible people many of our artistic heroes have turned out to be, is the idea that a genius can also be monstrous. We know that power has the ability to corrupt, but unchecked ambition is just as dangerous a force, and often comes as the precursor to the misuse of power. Tár shows great respect and admiration for her peers, collaborators and those who admire her, but this vampire keeps her teeth retracted in order to hide in plain sight. What Field is just as interested in is how a figure like Lydia Tár is able to exist within these circles, the ways in which bad behaviour can be excused and the hypocrisy that occurs when that bad behaviour is exposed in order to protect the institution. There's a moment where one of Tár's mentors (played by Julian Glover) bemoans the treatment of conductor James Levine, who was removed from the New York Philharmonic due to accusations of sexual misconduct, but when the wolves come for Tár, he is standing there with the cane to punish her. What the fictional character of Tár offers Field is the ability to aim his knife at the artistic institutions themselves that not only allow figures like Tár to mistreat, groom and abuse young artists for their artistic, sexual or power-oriented satisfaction, but foster an environment where this is possible in the first place.
This might suggest that 'Tár' is a kind of moralising, weighty and self-consciously "important" experience, but the greatest surprise of this magnificent film is how sprightly, daring and dynamic it is. One could, at points, almost call it a kind of black comedy. Tár wields her power, not just at the podium, but in every aspect of her life, and the manner in which she exerts that power can be, at times, deliciously melodramatic. In fact, the podium is possibly where she seems at her most fair. Spectacularly stylish, impossibly charming, incredibly imposing, she is a woman who doesn't so much demand or expect anything and everything she wants, but assumes it will happen. She is that most dangerous of predatory animals, the kind that dazzles with the eyes, who makes you feel like you are the only person in the world in that moment, until her eyes move to someone else, leaving you alone in the void. Not only do her charms keep Sharon in check, but also her assistant, aspiring conductor Francesca (Noémie Merlant, 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'). This is how she keeps this woman in her employ, the promise of promotion when no such thing is likely to happen, and how she keeps her marriage together despite the flagrant attractions and infatuations with other young women. Only young Petra is impervious, making her the only figure whom Tár does not actively or subconsciously play with.
Field is careful to ensure that, even though Blanchett as Tár is in almost every shot of the film, we are still able to see her through the eyes of others. This comes about in obvious ways, such as mysterious shots of Instagram Live videos spying on her, but also in a far more subtle fashion; the camera lingering on Sharon's face to see her reaction as her partner lends favour to the pretty young cellist newly joining the orchestra. It's these kinds of moments that suggest the collapse to come, and we the audience are just that one step ahead of Tár in seeing it coming. Her crimes are revealed like a mystery, but this is less Field trying to catch us with a twist as a manifestation of the careful manner in which Tár has covered her tracks.
She is that most dangerous of predatory animals, the kind that dazzles with the eyes, who makes you feel like you are the only person in the world in that moment, until her eyes move to someone else, leaving you alone in the void.
At the same time, the film simply wouldn't work if he didn't believe that Lydia Tár is, within the reality of the film, one of the greatest conductors on the planet, perhaps even the genius she is described as, and part of the thrill of the film is the electrifying manner in which Field manifests the work, consideration and instinct required in the creation and performance of classical music. Her genius is part instinct, but also tremendous hard work, and this links with her unquenchable ambition. Music is her entire existence, and anything that detracts from that isn't worth her time. This extends to the maintenance of her body as an instrument, that it is exercised and fed and nurtured, and this gives the sense that her sexual misconducts are, in her mind, connected with her needs as an artist. Sex is just as important a form of expression as art, but the danger is when the two become intertwined as a kind of power play. The vampire sucks the blood of a mortal in order to maintain its life force and immortality, and the connection between this act and sex is long established in popular culture. The use of sex as a form of self-gratifying power play within the arts is itself a form of vampirism, and by the time we meet her, Lydia Tár is so used to hiding in plain sight that she is becoming less adept at covering her tracks. Or perhaps it is also that the mortals no longer wish to be sucked dry, their talent and ambitions cast aside in order to service the Genius Divine.
It is fascinating to note that, rather than a male artist, Field chooses to explore the idea of female genius, leaving the question hanging in the air as to whether her position as a woman and as a lesbian within her field make her even more vulnerable to attack. Would the institution be as happy to throw her in front of the train if she were a man? She certainly tries to present herself as the masculine, with an imposing silhouette, pants rather than a dress, and the freedom to speak her mind with a conviction that often comes hand-in-hand with male privilege, but at the end of the day, is she still an outsider within a world where she has been led to believe she is not only equal, but titanic?
Though the film moves with a startling, exacting precision, at no point does 'Tár' overstay its welcome. Every frame of this film is enthralling, whether you are sitting in awe of the crackle of Field's screenplay and the spectacle of Blanchett's performance gymnastics, wonderfully baffled by the dry and unsettling humour, drawn into the uncomfortable mystery of the dark world just beyond the edges of the frame, or blown away by the bravura of its overall execution. 'Tár' is a work of absolute spectacle, a rollercoaster ride where you don't realise you've been strapped in, that your hands are gripping your chair with your knuckles white, that you're gasping from every sudden twist and turn. Some moments are a slow, satisfying realisation, others come like a slap in the face, but every one of them is in service of this magnificent character study, one that speaks beyond Lydia Tár herself.
The film revels in the grey area outside of clear definition, and it is in this spirit that Blanchett is given the scope to deliver probably the finest performance of her career. Lydia Tár offers her everything she needs to demonstrate the height of her powers - a character that we must love and hate all at once, transitioning from one state to the next almost imperceptibly. She needs to hide her danger behind a warm, delicate smile, hypnotising us with an almost sensual power. Another word we often use too freely is "daring", but Blanchett in this film fulfils its definition. It isn't just in the degree to which she embraces the murky ugliness of Tár, but the degree to which she is willing to demonstrate the unflinching, maniacal nature of genius. This is a performance for the ages, detailed beyond description and enthralling at every turn. The film simply would not work without her.
At the same time though, her performance simply would not work without her fellow actors, who bring a grounded humanity to this almost mythical figure. Noémie Merlant is devastating as a victim in the process of being victimised, aware of the snare around her neck while unsure of how to escape or if escape is even what she wants. Behind her eyes of admiration is a palpable sense of fear, of inevitability, of knowing she will one day be spat to the curb. By contrast, Nadia Hoss as Sharon is the observer, the constant, the wife expected to be there no matter what and bear witness to the genius, ignore the indiscretions and forgive all sins. Over the course of the film, we see her sit silently in the corner, her resolve to maintain her marriage and family slowly slipping away as she watches her partner flaunt her power to an even greater degree. If Blanchett's is the performance that hits you in your chest, Hoss is the one who breaks your heart, and that is vital in a film where the risk is always that the audience will misinterpret its affections being for the anti-hero. To fully understand the extent to which genius can destroy, we need to see the reach of its victims, including those expected to stand by and watch.
In an interview at the Directors Guild of America, Todd Field spoke about his shifting relationship with Lydia Tár. There were days where he hated her, where he was indifferent to her, where he admired her, and throughout production and editing, this would always be in flux. This is both apparent in the final film and one of its greatest assets. You don't walk away from 'Tár' with a single clear opinion. You leave with your head spinning with questions, dizzy at its moral conundrums, baffled as to where to start to untie the Gordian Knot of abuses of power and influence that it depicts. And this is exactly where we should be. Bringing these cycles of abuse to an end, cycles the film makes clear extend far beyond and behind Lydia Tár, and is not as simple as removing the bad apples. The rot is deep and requires something fundamental to starve it out. It's hard to truly know what a film as vast and complex as 'Tár' wants you to take away from it, but this is the feeling it left to me. Nothing about this is simple, but that doesn't make it excusable. It would be so easy to pinpoint one thing about Lydia Tár that explains it all, one swift move that can cut the rot away, but that just ignores how thoroughly ingrained this problem is.
'Tár' is an infernal machine of the most exquisite construction; a giddying and overwhelming experience the likes of which we rarely see on our screens. It somehow manages to feel intimate and gargantuan all at once, an electric shock to the brain that sends every synapse into overdrive. Todd Field has finally returned to us with a startlingly immediate, wickedly funny, deeply unsettling and ultimately awe-inspiring primal roar, with a performance from Cate Blanchett that feels pulled from the depths of the earth itself, bloody and spitting and monumental. I adored every fetid, magnificent frame of it, and have spent every day since desperate to throw myself at its mercy again. 'Tár' is one of the best films of the year, the kind to grab you by the throat and cackle with glee, while you look on in joy-filled awe.