Conducting a Life
Seemingly endless credits roll before the film even begins. What follows is equally pretentious: a too-long on-stage interview by Adam Gopnik, of The New Yorker magazine fame (playing himself), with Lydia Tár, the first woman to be the principal conductor (rather than a mere “guest conductor”) of a German orchestra. She’s also an EGOT—winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
As Tár in this interview, Cate Blanchett (already with 2 acting Oscars) comes across as inauthentic: at times stiff, at times stagily facile. In high-egotist form, she offers the vision of a post-feminist world; she acknowledges women conductors who preceded her and alludes to her “Accordion Prize,” awarded to a promising female conductor, yet interprets her own success as unhampered by gender. And Tár goes on to name-drop for her New Yorker audience, from JoAnn Falletta (photo inset), one of the first contemporary women conductors of a major orchestra (the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra) to Saint Paul—as long as you understand the reference to “Paulism” and falling off the horse. All of which could signal the film is aimed at coastal elites, or that Tár isn’t interested in communicating with ordinary people.
The inauthentic character here isn’t Blanchett the actress; it’s the protagonist, Lydia Tár, who was once named “Linda,” a hint that she’s guilty, among other transgressions, of having abandoned her roots. The power of the script by director and writer Todd Field (nominated for 3 Oscars, this is his first film in 16 years) lies in its gradual revealing of this enigmatic celebrity.
Tár later proceeds to a Julliard master class in conducting, where she struts her stuff—her confidence, her knowledge, her hipness (“I’m a U-Haul lesbian”), and then eviscerates a young “woke” student (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) who explains that he doesn’t like Bach because the man had 20 children, a perspective subtly foreshadowing Tár’s ethical lapses. Belittled by a preening Tár, the student storms out, calling her a “bitch.” “You need to learn from me,” she responds, unflustered.
In another early scene, Tár has lunch with a long-time colleague and friend, Elliot (Mark Strong). A minor conductor lacking her gravitas, Elliot pesters Tár to let him see her annotated score for Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which her Berlin orchestra is preparing to perform. Continuing her post-feminist musings, she poses the question of whether the Accordion Prize should no longer be limited to women.
These potent early encounters will come back to haunt Tár, and the viewer. They contain “plants”—the master class, the annotated score, the mention of the accordion—that will emerge in very different contexts. The scenes deepen one’s understanding of Tár, as more layers of the onion are peeled back.
Lydia Tár is a complex person: worthy of admiration and yet cold and impersonal, ready to satisfy her own needs at the expense of others. She brings to mind other great artists with deeply flawed personalities, among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Frank Gehry. She can dismiss her assistant with the wave of a hand and brazenly betray her partner. She also can provide dignity for her aged mentor Andris (Julian Glover) and unmitigated love for her child, Petra. Petra’s “is the only relationship you have that’s not transactional,” her partner Sharon concludes.
Blanchett’s compelling performance reveals the complexity of her larger-than-life character. While the other roles are decidedly secondary, most are inhabited by internationally acclaimed actors with strengths of their own, strengths needed to counter Tár’s forceful and authoritative presence. Important women in her life are Sharon (Nina Hoss), the orchestra’s concertmaster; Francesca, her beleaguered assistant and up-and-coming conductor (Noémie Merlant, radiant in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” ); and Olga, the flirtatious Russian cellist who is the object of Tár’s desire (Sophie Kauer, who is a cellist, in her acting debut).
The cinematography of “Tár” enhances its downward trajectory. It’s full of dimly-lit interiors, exterior shots of tunnels and underpasses, even a horror-film-like basement: spaces that are restricted, confined and enclosed, inward- rather than outward-looking. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music (among her many awards is an Oscar for the score of 2019’s “Joker”) is apropos as well. The orchestra—the real-life Dresdner Philharmonie—is energetic and robust, even in the short bursts of the musicians performing in rehearsals. And Lydia, who is “sound sensitive,” is haunted by musical sounds from a metronome to a beeping refrigerator, signifiers of a tortured, disturbed personality or the over-sensitivity of a great artist.
The narrative of Tár’s life unfolds chronologically, with little inventive editing. The story line is also not particularly innovative, deriving its strength in part from the gender of the arrogant, egotistical, sexually-prowling central character, resulting in an initial reluctance to assess her as negatively as one might a man. The critical event is over-determined, the ending excessive. These shortcomings, however, do not tarnish a rare acting performance and the in-depth portrait of a multi-faceted human being.
Tár experiences several blows to her exalted existence, most of her own making, though not entirely. The viciousness of social media plays a role. And if she represents the triumph of feminism, then feminism may also be on trial. In Shakespearean fashion, Field raises the question of the protagonist’s responsibility for what goes awry, while sparing us the Hollywood-satisfying, clear-cut answer.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Todd Field
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Sophie Kauer, Adam Gopnik, Mark Strong, Julian Glover, Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist
Country: United States
Languages: English, German, French, the latter two subtitled in English
Runtime: 158 minutes
Other Awards: 3 nominations to date, all at the Venice Film Festival, and one win, Blanchett for Best Actress.
Availability: showing nationally in theaters now; streaming set for February 2023; see JustWatch here for future streaming options.
Lead image: Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár in her element; Tár is the first woman to be the principal conductor of a German orchestra.