It may sound incredibly obvious, but a welcome curiosity in a film is how it depicts communication. This goes for language, for vernacular, for non-verbal cues, and emotional expression. I think many would find that some of their favorite movies are ones in which they vibe with how the dialogue is presented. If you dislike how the characters talk to each other, or how the filmmakers distribute information, there’s a good chance you might not like that movie. In Tár, Todd Field’s unblinking descent into muddy gender and sexual politics, I quite enjoy how the characters speak to each other, led by one magnificent performance. A good thing, seeing as there is so much talking in this movie.

But it’s a prerequisite, as the long-winded dialogue is necessary for you to warm up to and see the humanity in a scrupulous individual who often doesn’t see the humanity in others. Enter Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), famed composer and orchestra instructor. We know this because the film spends a lot of time talking about how outstanding Tár is at her job – she seems like the Tom Brady of composing. No, she is more like if Tom Brady had his career, retired, joined Manchester United, and then won the Premier League title. We’re inudiated with adulation for the title character, from journalists and fans alike, in the film’s opening minutes. Usually, this type of slurping is accompanied with “…and the Oscar goes to…”

Yet, as vain as the affair is, Tár’s passion for music is fascinating. She can rattle off names like Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marin Alsop, Laurence Equilbey, and Antonia Brico, recall their contributions to the field on a dime, detail their individual philosophies on music, and pepper it all in with how she personally took influence and direction from each of them. It’s an engaging opening because Blanchett is putting on a tour de force, and Field knows how to stage dialogue in a way that’s captivating. However, this efficient masterclass in exposition helps to lay the groundwork for the myopic person we’ll come to know Lydia Tár to be.

But, let’s hit the accelerando of this piece, as this story isn’t really about music. It’s about that unanswered question – can and should you separate the art from the artist? Tár certainly thinks so, and this worldview clashes with her Juilliard students. To her, judging one’s personal life should be off limits when assessing the greatness of the field’s most accomplished figures. However, I think she misses the forest for the trees. Her student doesn’t argue that these luminaries aren’t talented in their field. He argues that they don’t mean much to him personally – his knowledge of their misdeeds is too much to overcome and he can’t enjoy their accomplishments. But Tár is stuck on the acknowledgement of the greatness. What she fails to realize is that adulation, in all its forms, is not owed to anyone no matter how extraordinary their talent. It is purely up to the inclinations of the observers, yet Tár takes this for granted and believes that celebrity worship is the birthright of her and her equals in the field.

This is why the opening scene matters, in exhibiting her warped psyche, carved by the unquestioned praise of her talent, even as her personal morality continues to decline. This is a morality tale about choices, power, what is fair punishment for wrongdoing, who gets to decide the punishment, and what is the legacy of that person’s life. Despite this, Todd Field refuses to tackle these issues solely at face value. The film is mostly depicted from Tár’s POV, so the events are heavily impacted by her mental health. There’s an eerie feeling that washes over the story, as things become gradually more surreal. There’s even moments where we feel Field may be fucking with us; we question did we really see those things in the margins of the frame? Is Tár going through an episode of psychosis, or is this a ghost story?

The film is a cold tale, embedded with a cool color palette. Even the warmer colors are usually just brown, illustrating a feeling of mundane slowness as well as a notion of materialism. As extravagant as Tár’s life is, her everyday life is dim and colorless. Her blonde hair often blends in with the brown surrounding, including a striking shot in a shower, but also doubles as visual opposition to a very important redhead. The cinematography and production design isn’t showy, but does employ a sense of symmetry in the angles and blocking, stretching the field of space in interesting ways. To the point that I wish Field utilized that technique even more, to give the feature a more memorable visual design – but perhaps going full Terrence Malick would have been too distracting.

Tár, the film itself, is a rorschach test of sorts. Some will consider it to be a rebuke of cancel culture, as evidenced by it’s gender-flipped sex offender. Is that entirely accurate, though? I don’t believe the film is on the side of its title character in her crusade against PC culture. To others, that rorschach test will showcase the challenges facing feminism; that a woman of this power and authority whose poor worldview can make her so useless, an obstacle even, for the fight against the structures that oppress people based on gender and class. It’s noteworthy that Tár finds amusement in the word “maestra,” she ridicules it because it’s pointless to have a seperate designation for female composers. Yet, she seems to only reject this backwards way of thinking because it has an effect on her professionally. Later, she responds to a saddening tragedy with nonchalant emotion, only taking action in ways that will shield her from blame of the incident.

Meanwhile, the movie looks down upon its protagonist with an expression of shame. A ticking clock is a recurring motif here, and acts in outright mockery of an earlier claim from Tár that her performances are always in rhythm, never ever losing her sense of time. The reality is her smug confidence and adept skill will not be what saves her from follies in her personal life. That is the great tragedy of it all, her inability to look past her passion for music, and into the reality of what’s actually around her. Maybe that explains the weird hallucinations we see play out onscreen.

Tár’s neverending ramblings about her favorite artists, and her desire to find a deeper interpretation of their works, reveals an egomaniac obsessed with what it all means. She can’t come to grips with the fact that it doesn’t mean more, that it doesn’t mean everything. For, if her work meant everything, then her legacy and self-worth wouldn’t be impacted by how awful of a person she can be. She refuses to show empathy to those most deserving around her, rather it be her browbeaten assistant (Noémie Merlant) or her doormat of a wife (Nina Hoss). Her only relationship showcasing genuine love appears to be with her adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevic). Everyone else appears to be a transactional relationship, until the transactions degrade in dignity, eventually culminating in comical results. The comedic moments are fleeting, but memorable. Including the movie’s last moments, as well as a scandalous and violent public confrontation; the filmmakers have certainly seen Whiplash (2014).

Ultimately, Cate Blanchett dominates the movie so thoroughly that no one else gets to leave that strong of an impression. The only one who comes close is Sophie Kauer as a burgeoning cellist, whose ‘chillaxed’ demeanor and her proximity to Tár have multiple layers worth exploring. But this is a one woman show, which helps elevate its star, but also downgrades the rest of the film just a little bit. I don’t believe Tár will be the definitive epoch on cancel culture, I don’t even think it’s as worthwhile or audacious as Promising Young Woman (2020). But it’s thematic elements belong in the subgenre’s pantheon. It leaves lingering questions on how exceptionalism and hero worship could possibly foster the morality and selflessness it takes to assist progressive ideals. Tár urges her students to look deeper into works of art. But how deeply are we allowed to look? Or should we stop when we know what we’ll see next won’t warrant applause?