“Like the larger-than-life conductor she plays, nay, embodies, Blanchett commands the screen with imperial poise.”
Erudite. Intellectual. Demanding. Perfectionist. Bitch. Artist.
All terms that apply to Lydia Tár, the protagonist of Todd Field’s first film after a long hiatus (his most recent, Little Children, was released 16 years ago). A character study as well as a deep dive into the many aspects of a successful artist’s life, Tár features a phenomenal performance by Cate Blanchett, perhaps her best ever, in a story that ends up with many loose ends but has its 160-minute runtime fly by because of the magnetic qualities of its central character. A film that never truly lets you pinpoint where it is going, Tár has elements of a thriller that seem to confuse its lead character as much as they do the audience, but Field’s sharp but subtle direction never lets go of its examination of the drive of an artist to get to that elusive moment of perfection.
Lydia Tár seemingly has it all. Having been the principal conductor of the Big Five (the US’ major orchestras), she is starting a stint at the Berlin Philharmonic in what she calls her hometown. She also has a book coming out, a teaching gig in New York, plus an album of Mahler concertos to match her idol Leonard Bernstein, or ‘Lenny’ as she affectedly calls him. The hectic life of a major conductor, which involves much more than standing on a podium waving a stick around, requires her to have a personal assistant in the form of Francesca (Noémie Merlant), an aspiring artist herself who is hoping for an assistant conductor position, and secretly perhaps for something else as well. Lydia is spoken for though, as she is in a relationship with Sharon (Nina Hoss, in great form herself), with whom she raises a daughter. When a new cellist auditions for the orchestra, Lydia is immediately attracted to this Olga (Sophie Kauer), resulting in tension in her relationship with Sharon (it also lends the film its funniest moments). As if her workload and this amorous distraction weren’t enough, there is also a stalking former assistant conductor, Krista Taylor, who sends increasingly disturbing emails. And what’s with the recurring geometrical pattern that Lydia sees everywhere, or the odd sounds that keep her up at night?
Any sort of assessment of Tár should begin with looking at the hurricane of a performance given by Cate Blanchett. Already regarded as perhaps the best actress of her generation, her turn as Lydia Tár proves that there is no ‘perhaps’ anymore. Like the larger-than-life conductor she plays, nay, embodies, Blanchett commands the screen with imperial poise. At least five of those six words at the start of this review undoubtedly also apply to the Australian actress (you choose), and the devil is in the details here. The role involves speaking a lot of German, and her pronunciation is just good enough to believably be coming out of the mouth of an American who has lived in Berlin for a long time now (no doubt Blanchett would be able to give perfect pronunciation if needed). This is just one example of the small nuances that make Blanchett’s performance so perfect. The character may be larger than life, but Blanchett never plays her as such, keeping Lydia human in all her vulnerability, pettiness, and fleeting generosity. The subplot with the stalking conductor haunts her, but the source of her unease is never truly revealed. It does, however, put another layer on Blanchett’s performance, as the discomfort makes her icy façade crack at times.
The subplot itself unfortunately doesn’t really go anywhere, and it leaves many questions unanswered, but it does eventually lead to the downfall of Lydia, although there are other incidents that compound to her unravelling. A takedown of a non-binary student during one of her lectures, prompted by the student not wanting to play Bach because of the composer’s perceived misogyny, gets her fictional character in as much trouble on social media as it would any person in real life (or as real as life on social media is, anyway). But no matter how high her highs or low her lows, the metronome, the one constant in Lydia’s life remains her music and her artistry. It is a necessity without which life would be unbearable, and for which everything else must give way. “Every relationship in your life is a transaction, except with your daughter,” Sharon tells her during a fight, and it lays bare Lydia’s determination to aim for the highest, willing to use (or abuse) anyone who could help her achieve it.
Cate Blanchett is capable of a lot of things, but directing herself is not one of them (yet). A considerable reason why Tár works despite its long runtime is the American director’s work behind the camera, which is akin to his main subject’s profession. While the screenplay Field penned may be lacking in cohesion when it comes to the denouement of certain plot strands, his precision in the mise-en-scène is remarkable. As in his previous films his direction is never showy (unlike another director premiering on the Mostra the same day), even if both In the Bedroom and Little Children are decidedly different films. In particular the choreography on a scene-by-scene basis through the expert use of blocking and framing allows him to keep his dialogue free of unnecessary exposition. Cold, industrial interiors with stark lines and sharp delineations between black and white, light and shadow at both her work ‘home’ and her actual home reflect on Lydia’s character. So much is revealed by Field about his protagonist through her surroundings, whether they are the environments she moves in or the people occupying them. His screenplay is wordy and filled with musical terms that will fly over the heads of most in the audience, but those willing to roll with it will find in Tár an unflinchingly complex look at an unflinchingly complex character’s ruthless striving for artistic perfection at all costs.