“It is always the question that involves the listener, never the answer.”
For those who have had the privilege of taking in an orchestra performance, there’s something truly unforgettable about it. You’re seated, usually in a place where the acoustics are so immersive that they completely help to transport you. The music takes you out of your reality—placing you in the composer’s story that they’ve written through their music. The conductor of said orchestra is often one of two different types of people. They can be calm, articulating the music for the orchestra softly with their arms, or they can be loud—large swinging movements as the music flows through them like a flood. Nevertheless, people often wonder, what’s the point of a conductor, right? And to that, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a well-renowned conductor would surely slap you, unbothered by the consequences of her actions, because how dare you ask such a galactically stupid question. Then she would go on a long-winded rant about the importance of said conductor.
Tár begins with the acknowledgement of Lydia’s achievements. A woman who has accomplished so much, including a place in the prestigious EGOT Club, for which those recipients have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. A feat only few have achieved. However, those in her field, and the rest of the entertainment world, pigeon her to only a female conductor—placing her in a firm box, which no doubt leaves a sour taste in Lydia’s mouth. During what can only be classified as a “Q&A with Lydia Tár,” there are three people in this dynamic. The interviewer, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who steers the conversation by asking the questions. Lydia, the interviewee, and the audience, who applaud at everything that comes from Lydia’s mouth, hoping they too may be the one to impress her with their knowledge about a composer, a symphony, a movement, etc. But there’s also a red-haired woman, hanging on Lydia’s every word. The initial view of this sequence is taken from her POV, but for what reason? Who is she?
Lydia’s achievements are read at length. A woman who is Harvard educated, having conducted orchestras from Boston to New York and now the Berlin Philharmonic. We catch her in the middle of her upward momentum—knowing nothing of her background. On her way from New York to Berlin, she receives a book: Vita Sackville-West’s “Challenge,” which sends her into a small panic as she opens it in the airplane restroom. Here we learn that Lydia’s life is shrouded in mystery as she flies home to her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss). Although married to Sharon, she waivers in her marriage, constantly unfaithful and flirtatious with other women she meets in her life. But Sharon says, later in the film, that she understands the dynamic they have struck. What she’s married into.
The constant whispers from Lydia’s colleagues remain just that, but begin to spiral into a place that she can’t control, when scandalous allegations involving a former student come to light. When she refuses to change her callous personality to appease the board, Lydia only spins further into madness—her paranoia consuming her. Only then when Lydia is surrounded by the phantom dreams and trickery of noises that haunt her steps, can she truly break.
Speaking of consumption, director Todd Field consumed my cinephile soul through his films In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006). After his 16 year hiatus, I can finally say that I waited, with bated breath, for his inevitable return—checking his IMDb page for any news of upcoming projects. Actress Kate Winslet said in an interview, not too long ago, that he basically became a hermit. He was happy living his life away from making movies. I paraphrase her statement, to say the least, but it was a crushing blow to my heart, nonetheless. But now he’s back with a vengeance. Field takes a whole new approach to his filmmaking, and this is by far the most ambitious thing he’s ever done. A screenplay all his own, he’s able to play with his characters from start to finish. And by these being his precious characters, why trust them to just anyone?
Field said he wouldn’t have made Tár with anyone but Blanchett, and to be honest I can’t see anyone else in this role. Blanchett is absolutely astonishing. We know she’s capable of handling complex characters no matter the depth, but could this be her magnum opus? This may be her best work yet. Blanchett yo-yo’s from one emotion to another with Lydia’s plethora of imperfections, and her list of improprieties—Blanchett perfectly encapsulating every ounce of emotion. Not to mention, her phenomenal work in conducting a real-life orchestra.
Which brings me to my point, why the conductor? Is it purely out of Field’s love for classical, symphonic music. Tár is no doubt well researched in every aspect of musical theory. But I highly doubt that Field’s character of a conductor would be so interchangeable that it could basically be any career field to fit such a narrative. The movie plays to the point that conductors, though as impractical as they may seem, they are the most important player in the entire orchestra. They can speed up tempo, or slow it down. Articulate with the staccato of their baton, while leaving other parts quieter. This—in fact—is the point of Tár. The power dynamics of our lives, and how we use that within our relationships with others. Lydia holds the power over her orchestra. She holds power over her wife. She holds power in other parts of her job. But what happens when those parts begin to rip at the seams. Who holds that power, and who are those that are complicit?
Just when you believe you’ve peeled back the final layer to Lydia’s paranoic mind, there’s only more to uncover. Tár is in no way overhyped, because it is pure perfection from beginning to end. Blanchett, as well as the outstanding supporting cast, is sublime. My heart has ached during Field’s long absence. But if it was so he could create a masterpiece like this, then it was well worth the wait.
Written and Directed by: Todd Field
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Sophie Kauer, and Nina Hoss