Thought you’d already seen peak Cate Blanchett? Meet cancellable conductor Lydia Tár, her finest moment yet
Tár is a movie very much in the mould of its constantly present main character, Lydia Tár, a well-known conductor and fully functional psychopath. It is chilly, austere, alienating, completely compelling, and created with impressive filmmaking IQ.
She is a figure designed to go into the middle of the culture wars and shoot from the hip, and she is played by an Oscar-worthy Cate Blanchett beneath a permafrost of frigid disdain. She seems to have been conceived by a director who spent about ten years scrolling through Twitter, soaking up all the hate and polarisation, which may be the case given that Todd Field, the film’s American writer-director, hasn’t worked behind the camera since his arresting domestic drama Little Children back in 2006.
It was a loss for us. He exposes us to an exquisite but edgy tour of a high-art world full of ego and hidden traps from the moment the end titles emerge, incongruously, in the film’s opening moments, as if the film itself is tuning up. It explores the murky territory where desire turns into obsession and raw ambition into something far darker, much like Black Swan, a more heated psychological portrayal set in a similarly highfalutin setting.
Tár, an EGOT winner played by Blanchett, claims to have benefited from Leonard Bernstein’s guidance. Before an on-stage meeting with a New Yorker interviewer, she is found swilling pills when we first meet her. In contrast to who she really is, this moment demonstrates what she wants the world to think of her as: a low-Tár version who is driven by music above all else, even to the point of self-abnegation. She subsequently reveals her sacred mission: “You must stand in front of the audience and God and eliminate yourself.” When you see her in action, it comes off as more of a factual statement rather than a huge rhetorical flourish.
” Tár is built to wander into the midst of the culture wars shooting from the hip “
Before the story moves to Berlin, where Tár is scheduled to lead the esteemed Berliner Philharmoniker in a recorded performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (if you already know it as “The Five,” collect a pink wedge), an important scene occurs. A conversation that starts off light-heartedly with one of her Juilliard students quickly devolves into a public demolition operation in which Tár uses her mighty mind as a hatchet. The student berates “cis, male, white composers” like Bach in his argument. She responds, “The narcissism of little variations makes for the most monotonous of conformity.” Through a heavily manipulated video posted on social media, the exchange will come back to haunt her.
There’s a sense that even with her wife, concertmaster (Nina Hoss), the keys are still in the ignition and the motor is still running as Tár mockingly refers to herself as a “U-Haul lesbian.” The majority of her relationships are purely business-related: a friendly relationship with Mark Strong’s less skilled but equally ambitious conductor quickly loses its appearance of camaraderie; a talented cellist is cruelly abandoned; a devoted assistant (Noémie Merlant) is cruelly passed over for promotion; even a schoolboy is cowed in a terrifying way for tormenting her partner’s beloved daughter. By any standard, she is a dreadful person.
” It’s provocative, often uncomfortable but always mesmerizing ”
But Blanchett dares you to judge or dismiss her by vividly bringing her to life, along with all the brilliant, messy, and divisive aspects of her acidic personality.
The textures and tensions that Field adds to the movie allude to Tár’s deeper psychological fracture—ghosts of old wounds that are still too fresh to process. It doesn’t take away from the pathos that she was the one who caused them. She is a person who is going through pain.
It is the energising treatise that supports this controversial, even unsettling, but always enthralling character analysis. People are messy and complex, and they should always be forgiven, if not understood. Everyone has a cause, as Jean Renoir remarked. Simply said, Tár’s are more messed up than others.