Sitting, exhausted, in the near empty cinema at the end of Tár, whilst the wonderfully idiosyncratic trap music floated out over the end credits, I was unable to work out what I had just seen. Todd Field’s first film in sixteen years is a psychological thriller, and it is also a fascinatingly detailed and compelling exploration of society. It is undeniably a difficult watch about the politics of identity and power; attempting to reduce it to any individual genre or subgenre is ultimately a futile act. As a piece of cinema it is stunning, with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s engulfing score matching the incredible performance of Cate Blanchett, who appears in all but two shots, one of which is the final shot. As a cinematic event, the febrile discourse that had surrounded it meant I wasn’t at all prepared for the film itself outside of the apparent, and shallow, accusation of agitprop from the writer. 

The movie starts with a full credits sequence before going into a 20-minute interview of Lydia Tár in which we see her at the height of her power, as a compelling and powerful composer with a far-reaching reputation. Despite all of the initial exposition, we still begin with an unsatisfied knowledge debt when it comes to the apparently inappropriate way Tár uses her influence. By usurping a traditional structure from the outset we have also lost some of our traditional reference points for films, and at no point is there any sort of pause to allow for consideration of the events. Instead we are pulled slowly but surely into the paradoxical, impassioned world of Lydia Tár. The audience is never shown overt wrongdoing, nor is there any satisfying conclusion in which Tár is condemned or acquitted, and thus we have to extrapolate our judgments exclusively from the relationships and performances on screen, which are often unreliable.

One of the most fascinating scenes features the titular character on a run when she hears a woman screaming in distress. However, instead of investigating to go and help, Tár simply gets closer in order to hear the sound clearer, before leaving with her ever-present obsession with sound and noise suggesting that she was perhaps more interested in the pitch and octave of the scream, than concerned for the incident. This inherent ambiguity surrounds the character and her motives throughout the movie, and as an audience we are both compelled by her brilliance and disturbed by her abuse of power to an end that provides us with no resolution. Field creates an experience which leaves you hyperventilating in slow motion with no definitive way of judging how you feel about the characters. This provocative form of filmmaking can end up as a gimmick if not executed well, but every aspect of this film works to the benefit of it. 

A significant part of the creative arts, including film, is to challenge our expectations and initiate discussion. So for some to criticise the apparent missed opportunity that the film represents seems to display a limiting and archaic perspective on the power and scope of fiction. To insist that some types of people shouldn’t be written as evil or dislikable characters is almost as short-sighted as suggesting that Bach should be consigned to the classical archives. What makes Tár so powerful is that instead of dismissing her as simply a corrupt and abusive individual, we are invited to appreciate her humanity and ability to be genuinely nurturing.

This intrinsically dual nature is what exists in people, and should be celebrated in movie characters. Field’s final act of mastery is that he withholds the satisfaction of a clear ending, and thus the mercurial nature of this film and of its protagonist is what ensures this film will live long in the mind, irrespective of whether it stays long in the cinema.