Lydia Tár is an icon.
The first female conductor of a German symphony, she leads the Berlin Philharmonic; lectures students at Juilliard; has a new book to promote; and is preparing to record Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Her wife is a violinist in the orchestra, and together they have an adopted daughter.
But as accusations of impropriety are leveled against Tár, her personal and professional life begin to crumble around her.
“Tár,” the latest film from producer, writer and director Todd Field, the acclaimed filmmaker behind 2001’s “In the Bedroom” and 2006’s “Little Children,” examines that subject.
Despite garnering widespread accolades with his previous two films, including a combined eight Academy Award nominations, subsequent projects from Field never came to fruition — and he all but disappeared from filmmaking for the past 16 years.
Which makes “Tár” all the more fascinating.
“Tár” is no commercial, crowd-pleasing return; rather, it’s a dense, 158-minute slow burn that plunges the viewer into the world of classical music and the life of the fictional maestro, played by Cate Blanchett.
The actress, who reportedly studied conducting, piano and the German language for the part, gives a transformative performance as the conductor, disappearing into the role. Tár is a fully realized character, with Field’s screenplay dedicating the necessary time to develop the composer while diving head first into her extensive accomplishments and exploring her psyche.
Aspects of the film may at first seem esoteric to someone unfamiliar with the world of classical music — making detailed reference to influential composers, the musical process and the inner workings of an orchestra. But despite doing so with deliberate pacing, the film ultimately compels with pure immersion and depth.
“Tár” is a film for modern times. Set in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns, much has also been made about it as a film about “cancel culture.” Themes like power, corruption and accountability are on display, as Tár is put on full view of the public in a world driven by social media. Even so, Field’s screenplay never feels forced or preachy about the topic, with the filmmaker approaching it with restraint and leaving some ideas for viewers to make heads or tails of.
“Tár” may not reveal itself immediately to audiences, but it’s an impressive display of writing, acting and filmmaking, directed with an expert eye by Field and backed by a score from Academy Award-winning Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, that rewards the more its subject is interrogated.
“Tár” opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 21.