Todd Field’s latest film opens with an onstage Q&A session in which Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a fictional conductor, is being interviewed by real-life writer Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker Festival. It takes a bold filmmaker to start his movie this way, as this isn’t how most directors operate these days. There aren’t any explosions, capes, or buildings crumbling to the ground. It’s just two intelligent people talking about art, which is downright punk rock by today’s standards. Don’t be dismayed, though; it’s far from boring or pretentious. It sets the stage for the rest of this immense movie, placing a seminal but introverted artist in front of an audience, asking how artists fit into the world at large. It’s one of the many questions this singular work attempts to answer.
The opening interview also establishes Lydia’s backstory (a protégé of Bernstein’s, the head conductor of orchestras in Cleveland, New York, Boston, and now the Berlin Philharmonic) while providing a glimpse into her pathology. When asked about being a pioneer for women in classical music, Lydia sidesteps the question by saying that gender doesn’t define her. After the interview, Lydia meets some fans backstage. As she indulges the praise of a female admirer, her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), gratingly watches from the wings with the concerned look of someone who’s seen too many of her boss’ proclivities.
A self-professed “U-Haul lesbian,” Lydia lives with her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who’s also her lead violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic. They have an adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), and a chic home which is as austere as it is impersonal. Hoss is fantastic in how she follows her longtime partner with piercing eyes while measuring her own worth in the relationship. Lydia seems to genuinely love her daughter even if she gets more of a thrill by threatening one of the bullies at her school than tucking her in at night.
Inhabiting a character that is both detached but undeniably resolute, Blanchett never divulges too much, which keeps us on edge. Instead, she radiates a blistering intellect which covers up a deep anger. She’s especially contemptuous of contemporary dogmas, which surfaces when she teaches a class of hopeful conductors at Juilliard. When one of her students who identifies as “a BIPOC pansexual” refuses to acknowledge Johann Sebastian Bach’s genius since he was a white misogynist who fathered twenty children, Tár chips away at the poor kid’s stance with the precision of a sculptor, which culminates with the student calling her “a fucking bitch.” Depending on where you stand, you’ll either cheer for the teacher or empathize with the student. Perhaps you’ll do both.
As Tár prepares Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a notoriously complex piece that would cement her reputation as the best conductor in the circuit, we enter a hermetically sealed world of serious classical music. She moves through this crystalline universe of private jets, glass-encased conference rooms, and grand symphony halls with the prowess of a leopard; she owns her environment. We can already sense that’s a problem– she’s too comfortable. In many ways, she’s lived with people bending to her will for too long and she’s bought into the notion of her own importance.
At the same time we strangely understand her dominance. It’s hard not to. She’s a towering and inspiring figure. When we finally see her grab that baton and the music starts, she hurls her body and swivels her head as if possessed by demons. Her relationship with her musicians is also presented as a multifaceted albeit delicate minefield. Overseeing them with both a nurturing enthusiasm and domineering will, sometimes she’s inspired, other times, she’s indifferent and cruel. You can see this dynamic when she hires Olga Metkina (real-life musician Sophie Kauer) as the lead cellist, a spot that should’ve been given to the resident cellist, who exudes a deep sadness over this wayward decision. Although she leaves a lot of destruction in her path, Lydia simply isn’t affected by other peoples’ pain and passes through her like air. As Lydia becomes more taken with Olga’s talent and beauty, you start wondering if she’s also grooming her as a lover. Is she serving the music or her own desires? It’s a question that floats over the movie like a dark cloud.
Soon, Tár’s past comes back to haunt her when news surfaces that a former protegee and violinist has committed suicide. According to leaked emails and rumors, Lydia didn’t just have a sexual relationship with this girl but blackballed her from working in the industry. Overnight, the public pickets her appearances as the board of the directors furrow their brows a little deeper. And thus, her cancel culture-fueled downfall begins, culminating in a shocking moment, which might feel unrealistic at first, but makes perfect sense if you consider her psychological deterioration.
Field –a former actor who appeared in a slew of indies and had a small role in Eyes Wide Shut– is curiosity. Making his mark writing and directing In the Bedroom in 2001 and Little Children in 2006, he was hailed as a genius and possibly a new Kubrick. Then he disappeared. This is his first project in nearly two decades and it feels personal, but not in a conventional manner. You can feel him speaking directly to the idea of artistry and creativity. There are several scenes where Lydia awakens from disturbing dreams or reacts to sharp sounds around her. It seems the same things that inspire her, also chip away at her sanity. In this movie, making art is about facing your darker nature, while trying to wedge yourself into a society that’ll never understand you. It’s one of the best movies about creativity you’ll ever see.
It’s safe to say that Tar wouldn’t achieve this artistic success without Cate Blanchett. It’s a career-best performance and that’s saying a lot (read our review of Nightmare Alley for one of many examples of her great work). She inhabits gusto, anger, passion, and a deep sadness, sometimes in the same take. She’s filled with such passion and ferocity, she’s utterly confused when it spills into the wrong places. Even if you condemn her, and you probably will, you’ll still want her to express herself to her fullest. You might even be a little conflicted, god forbid. You’ll also feel inspired and exhausted by the end of this intriguing film. But those emotions aren’t cheap; you have to work for them. We are talking about a two hour and thirty-eight minute meditation on systemic power, the problematic nature of making art, and the consequences of an unremitting society. It’s quiet and strange. And it’s not a movie for everyone. Then again, the best ones aren’t.
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