I finally saw the film Tár, directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchett as conductor Lydia Tár, as it is now available via streaming. The small screen is perfect for a film where the narrative and drama is intense and concentrated. It also allows one loo/refreshment breaks, as it’s a slow-moving film – nearly 3 hours, and probably rather too long.
The narrative focuses on Lydia Tár, an autocratic, obsessive, narcissistic and manipulative conductor of a major European orchestra, magnificently portrayed by Cate Blanchett (respendent in beautifully tailored suits, with”mad conductor” swept back hair), as she rehearses “Mahler 5” (Mahler’s fifth symphony) in preparation for the final recording in her complete set of Mahler symphonies. But the main narrative thread is not about the music, it’s about personalities – Tár, her long-suffering assistant (who wants to be a conductor herself), Tár’s stoical partner Sharon (played by Nina Hoss), a young Russian cellist Olga (who becomes the focus of Tár’s sexual predilections), and sundry colleagues, students, hangers on and sycophants.
Since its release, the film has attracted considerable comment, particularly within the world of classical music, where many seem unable or unwilling to grasp this is a drama not a documentary and is therefore fiction. One or two big names in the profession have slammed the film for its portrayal of a female conductor, deeming it insulting to women, especially with regard to the protagonist’s abusive, controlling and bullying behaviour. Others have praised the film for shining a light on women on the podium. But any notion that the film helps the cause of female conductors is nonsense. That is not what this film is trying to do.
It is fact a film about power. Lydia Tár could be a banker, a chef* or a politician and the narrative would still work perfectly. The film is about power and how the hubris that often accompanies power leads to an individual’s fall from grace. It’s a classic tale which has been told many times.
In the character of Lydia Tár we see favours, bullying, sexual abuse, power games, manipulation and control all used by her to further her position and her power. And while these behaviours are certainly ubiquitous in the arts (with some well-documented instances in real life concerning big name conductors, musicians and teachers), they are also common in other highly competitive fields where fame and the chance of recognition are paramount.
The hubris which accompanies the ruthless pursuit of power inevitably leads to a fall, and an entertaining, literal one in this film, as we witness Tár’s increasingly erratic behaviour, her unraveling pysche and deteriorating relationships. The suicide of a young musician, whom Tár almost certainly groomed, haunts her, while her attempt to control this narrative falls apart.
Blanchett is accompanied by an excellent supporting cast, including Nina Hoss, Mark Strong, and Julian Glover as her ageing mentor. The film is precisely directed, with incredible attention to detail: the rehearsal scenes are very good, with Blanchett convincing in her conducting; there’s also a sharply-observed episode when she is teaching and she challenges a student for denigrating J S Bach, which taps right into the current zeitgiest of identity politics and cancel culture. There are some beautiful settings too: the apartment Tár shares with Sharon and their daughter Petra is elegantly minimalist, with smooth grey concrete walls and sleek furniture. But like Tár herself, it is cool and highly controlled: her scores are obsessively stacked on the bookshelves, and when one goes missing (stolen by a wannabe conductor and potential investor played by Mark Strong), her grip on everything and everyone around her begins to slip.
This is not a film about classical music and it’s not intended to offer insights into that world, though there are a few musings on the composer’s intent and the conductor’s role, most of which feel lifted from articles or quotes from actual real-life musicians. There’s also very little actual music in the film, and one even has the impression that Tár doesn’t really like the music that much, despite (or perhaps because of?) her obsession with it. But as a portrayal of the fall from grace of one who seeks ultimate power over others, it’s compelling, visually arresting and thought-provoking.
Tár continues in cinemas nationwide and is also available on Amazon Prime, AppleTV and YouTube