The press screening of Tár is quite a singular experience… the theatre was nearly empty and the movie had the longest opening credits. It’s about 5 minutes long and set to soft but rather dissonant music, which I later learn is supposed to be music being conducted by the film’s protagonist, Lydia Tár.
The film then opens with a mysterious scene of someone texting on an iPhone. Who’s texting to whom isn’t revealed until later, we only get a hint that the topic is Lydia and it doesn’t exactly place her in a positive light. What’s absolutely certain is that Lydia is a maestro. She’s regarded as one of the greatest living composers who was mentored by Leonard Bernstein himself, whom she calls Lenny during her interview with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. As a fan of classical music (my car radio is almost always at 99.5 – Classical MPR), it’s a treat to hear Lydia’s extensive knowledge and deep love for great composers.
Lydia is undoubtedly at the top of her game. She’s won an EGOT and splits her time between NYC where she teaches at Juilliard and Berlin where she conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. At this stage of her life, there are few things she has not accomplished, and she’s in the midst of rehearsal for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the last one of his cycle of symphonies. But the thing with being at the top is there’s only one way but down. It reminds me of Denzel Washington’s quote that he reportedly whispered to Will Smith after the infamous ‘slap’… ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.’ Well, in the case of Lydia Tár, she is far too preoccupied with herself and her work to face her own demons.
While Lydia operates at a level of the industry still dominated by men, there are two crucial female figures at play in the film. The first one we see is Lydia’s dutiful assistant and aspiring conductor Francesca, and her patient wife Sharon who’s Berlin Phil’s concertmaster (lead violinist). Lydia treats those close to her the same way she directs those in her orchestra… they must bend to her will or they’d incur her wrath. She shows no mercy to her students either, as displayed in her harsh rebuke of a BIPOC pansexual student who refuses to play Bach’s music as he regards the German composer as racist and misogynist.
If you didn’t know any better, one might think Lydia Tár is a real person instead of a fictitious character conjured up by writer/director Todd Field. Tár is his first film in 16 years since Little Children in 2006, and he’s meticulously researched this subject matter. It’s an intriguing character study of a fascinating fallen star. Some say this movie is about ‘cancel culture,’ but I think it’s an oversimplification as there’s more to it than that. Field also touches upon a thorny issue of ‘Me Too’ in regards to Lydia’s abuse of power, as a disturbing revelation involving Lydia’s former mentee finally comes to light.
Tár is equally beguiling and frustrating, at times too cryptic and perhaps even meandering. I realize that Field doesn’t want to judge his protagonist, so he paints her as both a victim and a perpetrator. We’re supposed to empathize with her as she’s being ‘haunted’ by strange voices and a metronome that suddenly turns on in the middle of the night, while all her transgressions are only implied but never shown. What truly kept me engaged during the nearly 2.5-hour running time is the cast, led by the sublime Cate Blanchett.
I’m running out of adjectives to describe her performance… simply transcendent and mesmerizing. You can’t look away even when Lydia is a classic textbook narcissist. As Lydia is peerless and obsessed with precision, Blanchett too is practically unparalleled in her acting skills and commitment to her art. I read that all the orchestra-conducting scenes are 100% real, she was actually conducting the Dresden Orchestra. She also had to re-learn the piano and how to speak German for her role, which she does brilliantly. Field has reportedly said that if Blanchett had turned down the part, he wouldn’t make the film. That’s wise as I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role. Her exquisite performance is a shoo-in at the Oscar next year and clearly, Blanchett is the one to beat by a wide margin.
I’d also be rooting for German actress Nina Hoss in the Best Supporting Actress race as Lydia’s long-suffering wife. Hoss is a phenomenal actress in her own right, and her quiet but powerful performance is memorable here. She conveys so much emotion with just her eyes, and her silence speaks louder than words. Noémie Merlant is excellent as Francesca, often the one who bears the brunt of Lydia’s tyrannical temperament. Real-life musician Sophie Kauer is quite the scene-stealer as a Russian cellist who’s the latest object of Lydia’s affection. Mark Strong and Julian Glover are both solid character actors who lend memorable supporting roles here.
The classical music world is rarely depicted on screen and the way it’s presented here feels authentic, at least from someone on the outside looking in. Field truly immerses you in Lydia’s universe, with the help of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music (which features original work as well as extracts from Mahler, among others) and Florian Hoffmeister’ evocative cinematography. There’s an atmospheric, moody feel, even a sense of dread that at times get under your skin. Unfortunately, my viewing experience is occasionally disrupted by the loud noise from the theater next door, which oddly enough happened while Lydia is hearing strange noises.
The ending is one that left me scratching my head… it is obvious Lydia’s career has taken a nosedive caused by her tarnished reputation, but how low does it go? I wouldn’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say Mahler is NOT part of the concert repertoire.
In the end, Lydia Tár remains a sphinxlike enigma. She remains remorseless and untouchable despite everything that’s transpired. The poster for this film is absolutely spot-on as it encapsulates the way people around her view Lydia from below as she’s perched atop a podium, too high and mighty to bother to look down.