What a stupendous meditation on creativity, power and predation this film is! And Cate Blanchett is sublime as Lydia Tár, the stratospherically sucessful composer-conductor whose personal and professional world comes crashing down just as she is about to scale the final peak.
The movie opens with a phonescreen showing a series of cynical texts. We see Lydia waiting at the wings at the New Yorker Festival. Her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), hands her water and pills and Lydia calms herself down with a series of tics to go on stage for an interview with Adam Gopnik (playing himself).
At the interview, we hear of Lydia’s achievements including being the first woman conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and for being an EGOT — having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. We see Lydia confident in her achievements and talents, with a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and the publication of her memoir, Tár on Tár, being further feathers in an already crowded cap.
Her lecture at the Juilliard School is a masterclass in music appreciation and the pitfalls of deconstruction (“The problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissident is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours..”)
In between blind auditions for a cellist and figuring out the cover photo for the Symphony, Lydia realises Petra (Mila Bogojevic) an adopted child she is bringing up with her wife, Sharon, (Nina Hoss) is unhappy and withdrawn.
There is also the matter of Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) a former member of the fellowship programme Lydia runs with investment banker, Eliot Kaplan, (Mark Strong) for upcoming female conductors.
The deeper we are drawn into Lydia’s life, the more we see of her brilliance and her abuse of power. She is attracted to Olga (Sophie Kauer) and manipulates results so that she is chosen at the audition. Did she encourage Krista and Francesca, which resulted in the permanent damage to both the young women?
There are no easy answers for Lydia’s behaviour or choices; if there is one thing we learn, it is that genius is also finally only human. If Tár had been the story of a male conductor, a maestro, it would have hit the expected notes of unfettered genius with flashing eyes and floating hair, riding roughshod over everything and everyone.
By being about a woman, who despite her choice of trouser suits, is not aspiring to be a man in a man’s world, Tár forces us to think about what we are seeing on-screen. Like Blanchett said in an interview, the film is a, “meditation on power, and power is genderless.”
We look on in awestruck wonder as Lydia’s world falls apart — her neighbours asking for her practice times so as not to frighten potential flat buyers with the “noise” hits the pinnacle of tragi-comedy.
Despite looking at #MeToo and cancel culture, (Lydia’s derisive, “the architect of your soul appears to be social media” is on point) there is a timelessness to Tár. The incredibly long takes at the interview and the masterclass are breathtaking in their dreaminess. The crew credits running at the beginning of the film instead of the end, and the selective subtitling of German dialogue renders us rather off-kilter.
Up for six Oscars, Tár is an unflinching look at the absolute corruption of absolute power as well as the healing might of music. Lydia has it right when she says, “It is always the question that involves the listener, it’s never the answer.”
Tár is currently running in theatres