Tár, not Tar – even in the title of this drama about a world-famous conductor’s epic fall from grace there are hints as to what exactly caused it.
Writer/director Todd Field, in his first film since 2006’s Little Children, structures this grand return like a symphony, with a big opening statement à la Mahler’s Fifth, introducing conductor extraordinaire Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) on stage in conversation with Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker. This is the full data-dump of personality – a glamorous, garrulous, driven, intellectual, unapologetic, combative internationally feted conductor at the top of her game. Tár’s self-satisfaction is almost unbearable to watch.
After that a series of sketches dip slightly behind the public face. With the courtly lawyer (Mark Strong) who runs her foundation for gifted students. With the old conductor (Julian Glover) she replaced and who still offers mentorly advice. In rehearsal with the orchestra. Teaching a class of students, where she refuses to buy into identity politics in a discussion about Bach – a depth charage that will explode later on. Lydia Tár idolises Leonard Bernstein – perhaps Todd Field means her to stand in for Leonard Bernstein. Brilliant, a master (she insists on “maestro” not “maestra” for herself) of control but emotionally hard to reach.
We also meet her at home, where a slightly, but only slightly, softer Tár is evident, with her partner and their daughter, still businesslike. Her daughter is not allowed in her “study”.
Tár jetsets around the world. She is the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s simultaneously a force of nature and a monster – Blanchett is so good as Tár that it’s easy to believe that it’s Blanchett’s magisterial awfulness we’re witnessing rather than her character’s (especially if you’ve been watching, as I have, her Christmas advert for Armani scent. It makes her, as all those actor-perfume ads do, look like a twat. Though no one can outdo Johnny Depp in that respect, to be fair.)
Digression over. Lydia Tár’s fall is Greek in nature, and in the second movement Field takes us from the external to the internal, and reveals the state of Tár’s inner life – her dealings with the people close to her, like Noémie Merlant as her long-suffering assistant (and conductor in waiting), Sophie Kaur as the pretty cellist Tár fast-tracks because she fancies her, Allan Corduner as the bumbling assistant conductor Tár has inherited from her predecessor, and in particular her partner/wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their daughter. It’s Sharon we watch as Lydia tries to pull Olga Metkina (Kaur) into her orbit, in a plausibly deniable way. Sharon has seen all this before.
Dropping in little bits of background – in particular a difficult ex student who never appears but is catalytic – Field starts to nudge this more obviously fallible Tár towards a precipice that she cannot see, but he is always suggesting is there. Lydia Tár is a predator, professionally and personally, but one who either doesn’t know she’s doing it, or whose entitlement insulates her from the charge, even from herself.
A filigree thriller full of excruciating detail, Tár’s insistence on not explaining every plot turn or musical term makes it the sort of film that makes viewers feel intelligent and cultured. The performance by Cate Blanchett – another Snow Queen role – is brilliant in a way that has Oscar written all over it (it’s “big” acting) but she is surrounded by a great cast. The little scene with Allan Corduner where she informs him he’s toast. The one with Julian Glover where, suddenly, a #MeToo gotcha rises from the ancient conductor’s past – gloriously written and brilliantly played.
Sophie Kauer, a cellist by trade – handy because she has to knock out Elgar’s Cello Concerto convincingly – had never acted before and taught herself by watching those Michael Caine masterclasses on YouTube (highly recommended, if you haven’t).
The IMDb trivia page states that the soundtrack moves from mono to stereo. If it does I didn’t notice it, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This is a film that uses all the subtle touches at its disposal to suggest, suggest, suggest that nemesis is coming. So much so that when it does it’s not so much a surprise as a relief. What a grippingly watchable film.
Tár – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022