Are all great artists necessarily great monsters, or is that just a story we've told ourselves for too long? The vectors of ego, talent, and personal liability collide in Todd Field's TÁR, a towering monolith of a movie rooted in an extraordinary, shattering performance by Cate Blanchett. She is Lydia Tár, whose success has earned her a rare kind of cultural cachet for a classical-music conductor: People pay just to watch her speak about her EGOT or her thoughts on Mahler, and moguls and doe-eyed groupies alike compete for the pleasure of her company. Her world is Gulfstreams and hushed hotel suites and a kind of severe, understated luxury (The devil wears Margiela, probably). There is always another prestige booking to jet off to or a class to teach at Juilliard, and a faithful assistant, Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire's Noémie Merlant), to smooth out the details and keep the riffraff away.
Lydia also has a partner, Sharon (the great German actress Nina Hoss), and a young daughter in Berlin, where she leads the city's world-class orchestra. Their domestic life, cosseted as it is in their plush townhome and the day-to-day of intra-office politics (Sharon is also her lead violinist), contains a certain wariness: The pills Lydia urgently swallows when no one is looking aren't hers, and her interest in a new cellist, a brash Russian girl named Olga (Sophie Kauer), seems less than strictly professional. In fact she has a history of shining her light on pretty young women in the industry, and of withdrawing those affections in ways that don't always end well.
Whatever damage she leaves behind, though, tends to sink or slip away in the white noise of her fame. And also through sheer force of will: Lydia, her dark-blond hair swept back like a lion's mane and her presence the gravitational center of every room she walks into, embodies the role of maestro so completely that it's hard to imagine her ever having been a baby or even a small child; she might have sprung fully formed instead from Leonard Bernstein's forehead (naturally she knew "Lenny," a mentor).
But when a former mentee of her own commits suicide, questions of culpability and undue intimacies begin to spill over in ways that Francesca and the press department at the orchestra can no longer contain. These are the bare outlines of TÁR, though what unfolds in the film's nearly two-hour-and-40-minute runtime defy almost any kind of easy summation. Most of the first 15 minutes are fixed in an on-stage interview between Lydia and the real-life New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik that feels, in some ways, like a pressure test — whether it will even be tenable to spend the next several hours with this person who is so mannered, so arrogant, so thoroughly consumed by her own monologue. But Lydia Tár, like all public figures, is a construct, and the remainder of the film is a wild unraveling, if not a full annihilation, of that elaborately built edifice.
Field — whose two previous films, 2001's In the Bedroom and 2006's Little Children, earned eight Academy Award nominations between them — took 16 years to make TÁR, and it feels very much like a magnum opus. His script is so masterfully formed and Lydia's world so wholly, viscerally realized that the movie becomes a sort of profound immersive experience; whatever the opposite of sensory deprivation tank is, this is it. Even the supporting parts are stupendously acted: Mark Strong as a fellow conductor who yearns to take Lydia's genius and cover himself in it like a balm; Merlant's Francesca, whose devotion and deference to her boss has subsumed nearly all of her own dreams; Hoss, who does more with her eyes in one devastating scene than most actors can do with the whole toolbox.
But the movie belongs to Blanchett, in a turn so exacting and enormous that it feels less like a performance than a full-body possession. That she slips often into fluent German and plays professional-grade piano in the film, among other things, is exceedingly impressive (watching her conduct, it feels like lightning might actually shoot out of her fingertips). But Lydia isn't a series of tricks and tics; she's a superstar and a virtuoso who has forgotten, perhaps, that she is also human, and that news comes for us all. Grade: A