I would never say that Todd Field’s movies remind me of Terrence Malick’s. I don’t see a resemblance at all. But I’m inclined to notice this commonality: Just as Malick’s first two feature films — Badlands and Days of Heaven — catapulted him into the conversation about the greatest living American filmmakers in the 1970s, so Todd Field’s first two — In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006) — spotlighted him as a force to be reckoned with, an auteur of substantial gifts and unlimited potential. And then, like Malick, he vanished from the scene. Oh, his name kept popping up in exciting rumors — most noticeably in talk about a possible adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s notoriously difficult novel Blood Meridian. But nothing materialized. I’ve been hoping for his return. And, because of Malick, I’ve been optimistic. After all, Malick stayed gone for two decades before he returned with the awe-inspiring, all-star epic The Thin Red Line, a film so much greater in scope and complexity that it inspired volumes of critical perspectives and debate. And here, 16 years since Little Children stunned and troubled audiences, Field returns with a movie that represents a leap similar to Malick’s in ambition, scale, and stylistic audacity.

As Lydia Tár marks up her performance score, so many things plague her attention. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Tár certainly looks like a movie that might have taken 16 years to make. It’s the sort of event that some cinephiles have been starving for — a film that inspires an animated, wide-ranging discussion regarding all aspects of cinematic artistry, and it will probably keep critics busy ordering second and third rounds of drinks as they argue about its long takes, trouble its tangled web of characters and relationships, tease out its weighty themes, and then shout about whether or not they are frustrated or satisfied by its jarring climax and its lengthy epilogue.

In the cineplex men’s room after the screening, I heard two men rush predictably to Oscar predictions. One voice said, “Wow — that was one heavy movie, right?” The other said, “Almost Best-Picture stuff! But there’s no way it can win. It’s too complicated. Too challenging for audiences. There will be walkouts.” “But Cate Blanchett — surely she’ll walk away with Best Actress!” “I don’t know. Her character is so… so difficult. Even for Academy voters.”

Whatever. Awards-talk is pretty much meaningless to me. What I want to know is this: Is the movie absorbing? Beautifully made? Meaningful? (In the Bedroom and Little Children certainly were.) Does it disrupt my suspension of disbelief? Or does it feel more like an ambitious director’s appeal to be revered among greats like Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick (for whom Field acted in Eyes Wide Shut) — both of whom I thought about frequently while watching this movie?

And it’s too early for me to offer my assessment of the film with any confidence. I can, however, recommend it without any reservations. It’s a feast, and a memorable one. It’s a feast I’ll come back to savor again. But I’ll come back because I’m uncertain, because I have questions, because I’m not sure everything here works for me.

The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnick plays himself, introducing us to Lydia Tár with a live interview. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Tár is … a lot. As it follows the career of a rising star in the world of symphony conductors, it traces myriad narrative threads. We learn a lot about Lydia Tar’s philosophy of art from an onstage interview with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick (as himself), who celebrates her landmark achievement in becoming the first woman director of the Berlin Philharmonic. We learn of Lydia’s adoration for the composer Gustav Mahler and the maestro Leonard Bernstein, whose flaws she acknowledges but whose achievements she covets. We watch how she approaches teaching Julliard students, an audacious and discomforting spectacle in which she earns wide-eyed fans and vengeful enemies. We piece together her history with her partner and concertmaster Sharon (the extraordinary Nina Hoss, whose supporting performance may be my favorite of 2022). We observe her unorthodox methods of parenting Sharon’s adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). We cringe as she exploits and abuses her assistant Francesca (Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant). We watch her struggle with a fierce and sudden infatuation with young cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer). We watch her navigate and manipulate a variety of male colleagues, including an adoring colleague (Marc Strong, even stronger than usual), her predecessor (the inimitable Julian Glover, most famous for facing down Indiana Jones in a quest for the Holy Grail), and her assistant conductor (Alan Corduner). Then there’s her insecurity as a composer, her dismissiveness about accusations against her, her obliviousness about the vulnerability of her position and reputation in the face of “cancel culture” attacks, and her fragile mental health. She has vivid nightmares and worse — at time she seems to be tormented by… what, evil spirits?

It’s common for an Oscar-season film to run for two-and-a-half hours. It’s uncommon for those films to demand such fierce attention from their audiences, to break so many prestige-piece conventions, to weave so many mysterious strands into such a complicated tapestry. Some arthouse films demand a second viewing before a viewer can speak with confidence about their experience. I suspect that we won’t arrive at anything like a “critical consensus” on Tár for years. It’s going to take two or three viewings before I feel confident writing about what I think of it. But do I love it enough to keep going back?

Tár peruses her collection of influential recordings. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

The moviegoing experience that Tár most reminds me of is one of several Paul Thomas Anderson movies that I thought about while watching it. On Letterboxd, I joked that “I didn’t know The Master was the beginning of a franchise.” This films asks as much of Blanchett as that film asked of either Philip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix, and it tracks a similarly strange and complicated figure — a philosopher, a manipulator, an egomaniac obsessed with legacy — on a rise and a fall. And, like that film, it asks so much of its audience when it comes to making connections and filling in blanks that I suspect it will frustrate as many as it inspires.

But it also reminds me of Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, as this performance will probably always be popularly remembered as the defining performance of the lead actor’s already prestigious career. Blanchett has been inarguably great since she dominated the screen in Elizabeth (and probably since earlier than that). But the ferocity of her silences, her dominant confidence, and that indefinable characteristic that makes her always seem two or three steps ahead of everybody else on the screen — this has made it difficult for her to “blend in” to movies with casts that are anything less than outstanding. (She was perfect as Galadriel, but Galadriel is supposed to be a dominant and awe-inspiring character.) This role is custom-made for her. The only other actresses I can imagine in the role are Juliet Binoche or Tilda Swinton — no one else commands attention like they do.

The orchestra takes the stage. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

And when the film nears its climax, I cannot compare it to anything except There Will Be Blood, as both the narrative and the performance become unhinged in ways that will divide audiences. I’m sorry to say that my suspension of disbelief is badly shaken, perhaps broken altogether, and the moment of peak energy. I can’t say more without spoilers, but I’m eager to see it again if only to discover whether another journey with this character makes that dramatic turn more or less convincing. In the case of Anderson’s film, I’ve come to love the conclusion and wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m not confident that will be the case with this film.

But I also thought a lot about Anderson’s Phantom Thread, as this is a movie about an artist who is uncompromising when it comes to their art but who makes all kinds of ethical compromises when it comes to relationships. But it’s also a movie in which prominent mentions of the name “Alma” either directly or quietly make us think of other “difficult” artists who were supported by women named Alma — namely, Alfred Hitchcock and Gustav Mahler.

What other great films did I think about? I mentioned Binoche earlier, and there are several moments in which I think of Three Colors: Blue, which was also about a haunted composer of sorts who has to decide whether or not to make herself vulnerable. Certain moments throughout the film made me wonder if they were direct references or mere coincidences. For example, both films feature a moment in which a woman is drawn out of the safety of her apartment to contend with troubles happening in the apartment building late at night, and the door almost closes — or does close — behind her. I also thought about The Shining, but we’ll see if you sense those resonances or not.

Lydia and Sharon have forged a hard-won relationship in an elite community. Can it survive this world’s temptations and pressures? [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

I haven’t even begun to explore the provocative questions that the film poses — questions about the cost of greatness; the corrosive effect of ambition on relationships; the unnerving frequency with which sublime artistic vision seems inseparable from human cruelty; the naïveté, hypocrisy, and grossly judgmental spirit at the heart of “cancel culture”; and the insensitivity and hard-heartedness that often causes egomaniacs to dismiss their accusers rather than engaging in any self-examination, confession, or reconciliation. No movie I’ve seen yet in 2022 wrestles with so many of questions currently blazing in the zeitgeist. I will have to postpone my examination of the story’s ideas about these questions for another time.

In a moment of unprecedented crisis, Lydia Tár prepares to take the stage. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

For now, I’ll suffice it to say that I’ve come away from my first encounter with this film more impressed than frustrated. No, it doesn’t all work for me — not this time, anyway. When the movie’s pent up energy erupts, it loses me. It feels like a miscalculation. And from that point on I’m studying the film; I’m no longer absorbed in it.

I find Blanchett compelling. I find Field’s directorial strategies exciting and sometimes virtuosic. What I enjoy most, though, is Nina Hoss’s heartfelt performance as Sharon — a woman who, though she is content to let her loved one take the wheel, becomes increasingly troubled by Lydia’s driving, and is forced to make difficult decisions regarding when to listen, when to be patient, when to offer quiet counsel, and when to put her foot down and demand to be let out of the car.

I came for the Blanchett greatness. I will come back for Hoss’s subtle strengths.

And I’m eager to know what you think of it. You should see it, after all. Because audiences are going to talk. They’re going to be argue.

There may not be many Friday-night, popcorn-munching fans. But believe me — there will be essays.