Tár (2022)


No one but Blanchett could have delivered the imperious hauteur necessary for portraying a great musician heading for a crackup or a creative epiphany. No one but Blanchett has the right way of wearing a two-piece black suit with an open-necked white shirt, the way of shaking her hair loose at moments of abandon, the way of letting her face become a Tutankhamun mask of contempt. Her performance will pierce you like a conductor’s baton through the heart – although the real-life conductor Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has complained about the apparent parallelsbetween her own life and Tár’s, and there has never been any suggestion of wrongdoing in Alsop’s own career.


Played with fierce and seamless commitment by Cate Blanchett, Lydia Tár is one of the wonders of the classical realm. She is a virtuoso pianist, an earnest ethnomusicologist, and a purposeful popularizer—she is apparently a member of the EGOT club, which isn’t a common achievement for a classical person. And as a protean conductor about to conclude recording a cycle of Mahler symphonies, Lydia needs to get away from noise to do the work to which she almost stridently commits herself.

Tár is imagined to be principal conductor of a major German orchestra, addressed by colleagues as “maestro”. She is passionate, demanding, autocratic, with a rockstar prestige and an international touring lifestyle approaching that of the super-rich, and is married to her first violinist, played by Nina Hoss, with whom she has a child. But there are problems in Tár’s life. She runs a mentoring scholarship programme for women, administered by a tiresome, oleaginous would-be conductor, played by Mark Strong, and there are rumours that this is a source of young women with whom Tár has affairs. Her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant (another would-be conductor) appears to be someone else she is keeping on an emotional string, and she is being stalked by another former mentee who has become obsessed with her; Tár has furthermore conceived a tendresse for a new cellist. Meanwhile, her guest masterclass at Juilliard goes sour when a young student, identifying as Bipoc pangender, presumes to dismiss Bach on ideological grounds.

But this movie is not about anything as banal as “cancellation”. Tár suspects that there is something wrong: she is twitchy, paranoid and insomniac. We know from the outset that she is effectively being spied on. There are strange sounds, intrusions and things out of place. And the music itself amplifies the violence just beneath the surface. It could be that Field has fallen under the spell of the maestro himself, Austrian director Michael Haneke, with the refrigerated sleekness of the film’s look and the ideas about revenge-surveillance, the return of the repressed and the tyranny and cruelty in the classical music tradition.

"It invites you to think hard about Lydia, about the meaning of her work and the consequences of her actions, about whether she is someone you should admire or revile, about whether artists should be judged by their work or by how they live their lives. In different contexts, Lydia herself argues both sides of that question, as many of us do, and to search the movie for a consistent argument is to miss the point and fall into a category error, misconstruing the extraordinary coup that Field and Blanchett have pulled off. We don’t care about Lydia Tár because she’s an artist; we care about her because she’s art."

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