By the time Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) receives a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge from a former underling (and possibly groomed sexual partner) we already see her seams show loose stitching. A burly introductory scene featuring a public interview with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik offers a slew of personality quirks that are as lengthy as the conductor’s resume, listed in short form by the essayist as she sits in a poised and regal silence. Her position as the student of Leonard Bernstein, as the conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, and her EGOT, all accomplishments that would rank highest among most others in her field. Tár is gunning for the big on – a performance of Mahler’s fifth, which would cement her as the only conductor to ever complete all nine symphonies with the same philharmonic. This is a bold achievement and she’s on the cusp of pulling it off, but she’s also got a memoir coming out (titled “Tár on Tár” in a hilariously self-aware bit of egotism) and a family at home that also needs her attention. She’s balancing a lot, but her wife and concertmaster Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) is able to help stabilize the aggressive artist alongside Lydia’s assistance and seemingly side-piece, Francesca (Noémie Melant). At least, that is, until the book arrives.
Lydia Tár is a blunt instrument that knows how to perform her station to the best of her ability, a staggering intellect and talent that owns every room she’s in, but her life exists as pastiche. Todd Field’s first film in sixteen years is a complicated one, uninterested in the easy answers that might otherwise be afforded to a film about a female conductor in a line of work whose history is decidedly male, but it begins by poking those bears. Lydia’s journey is a series of conversations drawn out to their inevitability, but her words enmesh the audience with an understanding of who she is that doesn’t need to be spelled out in exposition of a more direct variety. She may not identify as male, but this does not stop her from identifying herself as “Petra’s father” to her adopted child’s school bully. It doesn’t stop her from tiptoeing through records of great conductors and composers that came before her, selecting a look for her own vinyl cover (despite the recording company’s insistence that her box set of Mahler Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic will be all digital) that is decidedly based on her mentor’s. It doesn’t stop her from engaging in behavior that we normally assign to male individuals either; men whose abuse of power and toxicity has been hung by the modern world’s social media obsession with cancel culture, which Field’s film triumphs and mocks all at once. That pastiche, that greatness through previous greatness, is directly called on by Julan Glover’s Andris Davis, the former director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and is referenced in the context of Beethoven stealing measures from Mozart and being hailed as a genius for it. That problematic bit of classical writing has become a template for Lydia’s life, though she openly shows distaste for it and all that it encompasses.
Blanchett is allowed to engage Lydia Tár directly in that conversation, berating a Julliard student for his refusal to engage with classic masters like Bach or Beethoven due to their white male privilege (he himself is a young black man that is coded as queer). This may or may not come back to bite her in the ass, but it reveals a yearning for the world to engage with the concept of the “death of the artist” so that we may truly appreciate their work despite their shortcomings. Her own are beginning to rear their ugly heads, appearing in the form of emails and novels and her own inability to control her horny energy, each instance beginning to take not only a mental but a physical toll as Lydia moves from confident and proud woman to an aching maniac screaming at the world with an accordion. Her lack of ability to connect with a student that refuses to acknowledge masters failing modern social justice tests is what leads to her bafflement as that same bit of justice is leveled at her, with social media going wild after the death of a young conductor she may or may not have groomed.
The failures of Lydia are what complicate our relationship with her as an audience. While we are to objectively observe this individual one cannot help but be mesmerized by who she is despite being able to tell that she is a problematic artist. Her relationship with her assistant, her wife, and to new cellist Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer) are all transactional, with her attaining something or giving out instead of developing a true emotional connection. Her only true love is music, but this does not stop her from becoming a decidedly awful and even cold individual that is only truly interested in soaring ever higher while her wings melt.
Blanchett has immersed herself in deep and nervy roles multiple times in the past, with everything from Sam Raimi’s The Gift to Todd Hayne’s Carol, but this is perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen her truly let go and just savage herself onscreen. Her wit cuts as sharply as Lydia Tár’s prominent cheekbones, but the willingness to engage in both brilliant destruction and black comedy all at once takes a subtle hand and a lot more nuance than the character at first seems capable of. It’s a series of layers peeled back to reveal a core that has been buried more out of carelessness than catharsis.
The presence of Hildur Guðnadóttir. The Joker composer takes a different tack, creating something that is the center of a world rather than just an aesthetic, and had a direct influence on the film’s overall tone and voice. Blanchett also gets involved with the music, conducting the Dresden Philharmonic as part of the film’s score and directly engaging with what Guðnadóttir is doing with the life behind the eyes of Todd Field’s film. The music is a balm soothing over the cracks created by Lydia’s mistakes to keep them at bay even as they bang on the door and demand justice. I was not a fan of Guðnadóttir’s Oscar-winning score in 2019, but her work on Tár is nothing short of brilliant. For the release, she created a concept album, full of music for and inspired by the film, and it allows Guðnadóttir to engage openly with the material she’s been handed. It’s a beautiful and complicated series of pieces, not unlike the life of the film’s subject, and I cannot wait for the physical release in January 2023.
Tár may be led by Blanchett’s brilliant performance, but the film exists as a fascinating and gripping object that requires more than just passive viewing. It takes time and study, engagement with the film, and an understanding that even a bad person can be a compelling and even romanticized figure that is still demanding of judgment. Sackville-West’s novel may be a targeted bit of harassment, but the journey it kicks off offers so much more than just a tale of a powerful figure falling from grace.
Tár is currently playing in theatres.