Being interviewed on stage as the movie opens, the life of classical conductor Lydia Tár looks to be resounding with symphonic levels of success. Through sheer talent and a singular drive, she has worked her way up to the heady heights of helming the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Her resume is longer than a CVS receipt, with a PhD from Harvard, years spent in remote jungles exploring music anthropology and even EGOT-ing (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) her way to fame beyond the concert halls.
Nowhere to go but down from here, right? An upcoming completion of recording her hero Mahler’s works is the backdrop to a nuanced and expertly-paced fall from grace, but director Todd Field isn’t in a hurry to get there. Settle in for a near-three hour psychological drama that both Field and lead Cate Blanchett deliver with a masterful touch.
At first, small actions hint at some of Tár’s more worrying idiosyncrasies: courting sexual attention from admirers, mild germaphobia, lying to her long-term partner (the orchestra’s first violinist, played by Nina Hoss) with whom she is raising a young child (Mila Bogojevic). She leads a bad-tempered tutorial at Julliard, cowering a young conducting student into submission about the separation of art and artist when he suggests that Bach might not be a hero to everyone.
What follows is a compelling examination of Tár’s lifestyle of panoramic manipulation, balanced with her descent into utter derangement. Dissatisfied with her long-time, aging assistant conductor, she plots to have him removed but rigs it to like his own choice. She elevates less qualified players in the orchestra so that she can seduce them, and she gaslights her long-term partner in sinister, controlling ways.
The death of a former protégé sparks increasingly frequent bouts of paranoia. As much as her life is dedicated to sound, Tár also suffers from misphonia - a condition where ambient noises trigger a flight-or-fight response - and she often wakes at night, startled by a buzzing refrigerator. Aural irritations add to the growing cracks of a mental breakdown, as her professional machinations and predatory behaviour begin to catch up with her, shaking her lofty perch.
It’s a performance that should have Blanchett in real-life Oscar contention come awards season. She is at once utterly controlling, intimidating and dynamic, but with weaknesses that lay her vulnerability bare. Sometimes impulsive, never satisfied (especially romantically), insecure and bullying. She’s a loving mother, though, and she lives for musical beauty, and so even as she deteriorates, sympathetic virtues underpin her worst excesses.
Tense lingering takes, the absence of a score beyond the music played on screen and a script that makes the audience calculate plot inferences for themselves instead of being spoon-fed: these are all daring choices by Field given the film’s length. However, it’s gripping from the start thanks to the subtle way that the rot sets in, as well as the engaging performances. Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant is excellent as Tár’s long-suffering assistant, as are ingénue cellist and temptress Sophie Kauer and classical old guards Mark Strong and Julian Glover.
It’s a thrilling character study, as well as one that addresses sexual morals in entertainment head on. The film’s movements are conducted expertly by Field and Blanchett, and in the end, it’s more of a requiem for a dream than a mighty opus. (PO)
Tár is playing at Prytania Canal Pace