Oscar-tipped drama Tár thrillingly captures digital and cancel culture | Cate Blanchett

The film Tár opens with the dual lenses of celebrity. First, in private, through a screen: Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár sleeps in a private jet, curled into the chair, face obscured by an eye mask. We see her through someone else’s phone – an assistant, a flight attendant, a friend? – filmed in the style of an Instagram live overlaid with private, mocking text. She’s a vulnerable cipher, surveilled, alone.

Next, in public, in a theater – the vaunted conductor commands the room of a New Yorker talk, hosted by the magazine’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself. Writer and director Todd Field’s incantation of this particular ritual of elitism is so spot-on – the crisp spotlight, the ripples of polite laughter, his erudite fawning, her faux humility – that you could be forgiven for thinking that Lydia Tár, the protege of Leonard Bernstein and Egot winner and first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, was a real person, the subject of a prestige biopic. The type of cultural figure with a detailed Wikipedia page, which the film provides following her onstage introduction, as if anticipating the viewer’s urge to immediately google any new information with the character’s detailed biography.

It’s a convincing creation of celebrity; part of the thrill of Tár, lauded by many critics correctly as one of the best and most challenging films of the year (with a career-best, and potentially Oscar-winning, performance from Blanchett), is its pop cultural realism – tweets and Instagram posts, official bios and Google image results. Tár is a voracious, burrowing character study of an artist haunted by her own sins, whose insular life is nevertheless buffeted, punctured and undone by the world and culture outside her, one conducted primarily on screens.

Many critics have also hailed Field’s film, his first in 15 years, as a standout #MeToo movie and the best film to date on “cancel culture”. This is both true and, as with any invocation of cancel culture, flattening. True, in that Tár’s fall from grace does echo storylines familiar from the last few years though, crucially, embodied by a sharp-tongued, indisputably talented woman, a self-described “u-Haul lesbian” in tailored suits played by the magnetic Blanchett . The film plays like a thriller, the hunters being Tár’s past transgressions. They tear at her insulated life, new revelations dovetailing with old patterns – that she groomed younger musicians, blackballed those who turned her down, played favorites, acted vindictively, was a vituperative bully, believed superior craft could license cruel behavior with devastating consequences.

But Tár is too spiky and elusive to be a morality tale of inevitable comeuppance or, as some have argued, a reactionary castigation of cancel culture. It’s less cultural critique than intricate character study and a rare superior entry into the canon of digital culture films. That alone is an achievement – ​​very few films incorporate the daily minutiae of screen life, tie themselves to the hyper-documented digital timeline, or use social media as a dramatic force and succeed. The internet onscreen is usually a simplifier, a distraction, not a rewarding complication.

Here, it is the audience’s window for outside scrutiny. Tár’s perspective assumes her narcissism – important facts and people flit out of frame, are delivered in a passing line, blur outside of view until it’s so pressing she can no longer ignore it. The cracks in her beige, brutalist cocoon arrive via screen – desperate emails from a distraught former mentee and implied romantic partner; Tár’s own emails blackballing her, which she scrolls through in a chilling blur; the cryptically furtive Instagram stories, an anonymous edit to her Wikipedia page. Alone in a hotel room, Tár scrolls Twitter and balks at tweets derisively wondering if the young cellist she brought with her to New York was her “new plaything”. In truth, she was trying to seduce the cellist, a digital native skeptical of her king-making power and uninterested in her advances. Public scrutiny and private terror, self-delusion and incomplete narrative, both wrong and right.

Tár succeeds at touching all of these third rails – the internet, #MeToo, cancel culture – through its relentless, almost totalizing focus on one person. Lydia Tár is an exacting maestro, a champion of art, a refined outlier in an all-male field; a chilling narcissist, a petty boss, a dinosaur clinging to the myth of meritocracy and singularity, an embarrassing artifact. She is warm towards her adopted the daughter – the only relationship in her life, says her wife (played by Nina Hoss) that is not transactional – but her strongest act of love for her is to pull the girl’s six-year-old bully aside at school and promise, with a voice of cut steel: “I’ll get you.”

Cate Blanchett in Tár. Photograph: AP

In other words: a person, infinitely complex and opaque and who, unlike the ideologies that can infect or transform or characterize us, is not wholly dismissible. Tár treats this as baseline fact rather than argument. It is not so much giving complexity to an abuser as taking a different tack on abuse of power than an unassailable tale of victimhood, such as more overt #MeToo films Promising Young Woman or The Assistant. Lydia Tár is sympathetic insomuch as she is human, and you’re watching her. It’s not so much a question of separating the art from the artist – you ca n’t discount the cost of her sins or her lies – as parsing the distinction between monstrous and easily dismissible monster.

Take, for instance, one of the film’s most-discussed moments, an early scene in which a guest-lecturing Tár eviscerates, with brittle dignity and lacerating conceit, a “a Bipoc pangender” Julliard student for his dismissal of Bach for his misogyny. Field has arguably stacked the deck for Tár, creating a too-easy, Twitter rip-off victim for her egomania and providing an absolute showcase for Blanchett as an actor. But the confrontation, in which other students film her bullying, believably ricochets through the film, a spiral of “two things can be true at once”. Lydia Tár shattered confidences and ruined lives; she’s not wrong that the videos later posted to Twitter to expose her as a bully were edited to make her seem as bad as possible; the interaction was condemnable; social media skewed the truth; the truth still was that her gnarled, indignant response told on itself.

Tár is, ultimately, an intellectual, arguably pretentious film; it is far more head than heart, one so uninterested in pandering it can feel remote. It demands a rewatch to catch what lax attention missed the first time. That attention to detail, its precise unraveling of its star, seems to argue most for complexity – there’s something messier and discomfiting outside the screen. And, in that space, room for art that does what so much online discourse does not: provoke thought and surprise.

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