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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Throughout the new film written and directed by Todd Field, its title character, a person of exceptionally sensitive hearing and possibly perfect pitch, is almost constantly distracted from her vital activities by extraneous noise. Played with fierce and seamless commitment by Cate Blanchett, Lydia Tár is one of the wonders of the classical realm. She is a virtuoso pianist, an earnest ethnomusicologist, and a purposeful popularizer. And as a protean conductor about to conclude recording a cycle of Mahler symphonies, Lydia needs to get away from noise to do the work to which she almost stridently commits herself.
Lydia is a busy person. She has a quiet, glum, efficient assistant named Francesca (Noémie Merlant) whom Lydia addresses with less warmth than most humans would apply to Siri or Alexa. As she prepares to leave for Berlin, where she’ll be recording the last symphony in her Mahler cycle, the Fifth, she lunches with a fellow conductor, Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), who clearly envies her. She tells him of her plans for the Berlin orchestra, including “rotating” an older colleague whose ear isn’t what it used to be. The conductor also has a pursuer, or maybe more than one pursuer. We see an iPhone screen recording Lydia and texting snarky comments. She is not universally beloved. Nor is she particularly lovable. On returning home, she upbraids her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss) for keeping too many lights on in their Berlin apartment.
But as a person, she’s selfish by default. She serves Lydia Tár. And Lydia has a lot of appetites. In Berlin, she is knocked sideways by news of the suicide of a former protégé. And even as she’s trying to cover her tracks in this affair, erasing emails and pressing Francesca to do same, Lydia sets her sights on Olga (Sophie Kauer) a promising young cellist, playing games with senior orchestra members to promote the rookie. TÁR is that rarest of items: a prestige awards contender that’s also a genuine art film. The narrative unspools in an insinuating, sometimes enigmatic way. In the end, TÁR is not a diatribe or parable, but an interrogation, one that seeks to draw the viewers in, and compel them to consider their own place in the question.