TÁR is the most compelling movie that I have seen in a long time.
Cate Blanchett is riveting in this award-winning performance as Lydia Tár, the conductor of a major German orchestra. TÁR is a very contemporary commentary about entitlement, consequences, and karma. You very quickly discover that despite her enormous talent, she is a complete narcissist who has no qualms about manipulating people to achieve her agenda.
Cate is so brilliant in her portrayal that I assumed it was based on a real person. So much so that I wanted to read the biography or buy the book. Sadly, there isn’t a book, but the movie is brilliant. There would be a lawsuit if TÁR was based on a real person.
I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I did find it refreshing to see a woman play a predatory role. TÁR is the female version of Harvey Weinstein.
TÁR is quite a restrained movie that verges on being academic. It doesn’t rely upon sensationalism to entertain the audience and it doesn’t dumb itself down by explaining itself.
I also love the monochromatic aesthetic of the movie. The palette is black, white, and grey, with the exception of one scene where she takes a potential love interest to a restaurant and there is food on the plate. It is a very austere aesthetic to match the tone of the movie.
TÀR opens at South African cinemas on Friday, 3 March 2023.
From writer-producer-director Todd Field comes TÁR, starring Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, the groundbreaking conductor of a major German Orchestra. We meet Tár at the height of her career, as she’s preparing both a book launch and much-anticipated live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Over the ensuing weeks her life begins to unravel in a singularly modern way. The result is a searing examination of power, and its impact and durability in today’s society.
“This script was written for one artist, Cate Blanchett. Had she said no, the film would have never seen the light of day. Filmgoers, amateur and otherwise, will not be surprised by this. After all, she is a master supreme. Even so, while we were making the picture, the superhuman skill and verisimilitude of Cate was something truly astounding to behold. She raised all boats. The privilege of collaborating with an artist of this caliber is something impossible to adequately describe. In every possible way, this is Cate’s film.”
TÁR opens on an interview between Adam Gopnik and Lydia Tár at The New Yorker Festival, where Tár’s profession comes into focus: After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, the American polymath became a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute before earning her Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru, where she spent five years among the Shipibo-Konibo people. As a conductor, she ascended the ranks of the “Big Five” American orchestras, all the while composing, and in the process earning all four of the major awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, placing her on a short list of so-called EGOTs.
With the support of investment banker and amateur conductor Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), Tár founded the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, whose guiding principle is to provide entrepreneurship and performance opportunities for young female conductors. After guest conducting for Berlin, Tár became the orchestra’s chief conductor, a position she has held for seven years .
“For the longest time I’d been thinking about a character who took a childhood pledge of self-education to pursue a dream, and once she’s achieved it, the dream morphs into a nightmare,” says Field. “Whereas once Tár lived a life dedicated to art, she now finds herself running an institution that lays bare her own weaknesses and proclivities, proselytizing her rules to others only to violate them herself with seemingly a total lack of self-awareness. But as Janet Malcolm would say, ‘Being aware of your rascality doesn’t excuse it.’”
“Like a lot of people who are in positions of authority, who breathe the rarefied air of tenured orchestras like the ones in Germany, Tár is enigmatic,” says Blanchett, “That was challenging for me in terms of bringing the character to life and finding the moments that would allow the audience to connect with her experience — because this is a woman who doesn’t really know herself.”
Off the podium, Tár’s life consists of a long-term relationship with Berlin’s concertmaster Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and the two raise their adopted Syrian daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic) in a modern Berlin home; Tár is close with her mentor and predecessor Andris Davis (Julian Glover), who helps her navigate the intricate complexities of her position. And she herself is a mentor to Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant), her young assistant who hopes one day to have her own life as a conductor.
“It was one of the most stunning and intelligent scripts I’ve ever read,” says Hoss, who has appeared in several critically acclaimed works by the German director Christian Petzold. “The tension remains very high until the end — you plunge into this character and there’s no relief. You also get excited about what experiencing music does to you on an emotional and psychological level. To say nothing of the business behind the classical music world and the ferocity in it. Todd’s script creates a rich dramatic environment — but at the same time the story has an immense soul to it.”
Adds Merlant, “TÁR introduces us to a milieu we don’t often see — the world of the orchestra and its conductor — but it places a woman in the central role and uses other women to talk about this world and explore the complexity of the relationships between people who live and work in it. The story is very modern in the way it examines power dynamics and prompts questions about their complicated nature.”
As the orchestra prepares for their Deutsche Grammophon live recording date of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 — a high-water mark in Tár’s career — signs of trouble begin to appear.
“Women conductors so often get the chamber pieces but not the big guns — and frankly that wears her down,” says Blanchett. “She finds herself making decisions that are unwise as a result of being exhausted by these systemic processes. You stand on the podium as a woman and a certain percentage of your focus has to push the political fact that you are standing there as a woman.”
In the film’s second half TÁR becomes a story of shifting power dynamics as her orchestra — a democratic body in which the musicians elect the conductor — begin to view her differently. “The notion of democracy versus autocracy is so alive in Todd’s story,” says Blanchett, culminating in a scene in which Lydia and her daughter play orchestra with stuffed animals after the conductor’s power at the podium is threatened. “It’s not a democracy,” Tár instructs the child, revealing the conflict at the heart of Field’s screenplay.
MAKING SENSE OF NOISE
Like so many, Field was first introduced to concert music through Leonard Bernstein. (Field’s own musical background is in jazz.) “When you look at the Harvard lectures Bernstein gave in the 1970s, he removed all the pretense and replaced it with love,” Field says, “He makes it clear that classical music is noise: you can play this phrase and make it sound like Dragnet, or change the touch and attack and make it sound like Charles Ives — it’s all the same. This music should be defanged, demystified, and taught in the public schools. Mahler V – the piece Lydia is set to conduct – is the work that truly changes everything. If you’re listening to a film score today, or for that matter Bugs Bunny, you’re hearing music born from this canonical work.”
TÁR is a rehearsal film, a process film, and Field wanted to try and convey the on-and-off-stage mechanics of such a thing. “One concern about placing a character into this milieu, was that people who actually live their lives there might shrug the film off and say we’d gotten it wrong –– that we’d presented a toy town version of the discipline. So, it was essential the job of conducting have real agency in the narrative and not simply be there as a backstory for something else. Reading John Mauceri’s books on conducting set me on a path. I called John up and found myself under the spell of a true master.”
Mauceri laid out a course study for Field, and the two spent many hours on the phone together. “John was incredibly generous with his knowledge and time. His enthusiasm, very much like that of his mentor Leonard Bernstein, is absolutely contagious.”
For years Mauceri conducted “Movie Nights” at the Hollywood Bowl, drawing sell-out crowds helping to legitimize film scores in the minds of classical music audiences. “John has an unusual background for a conductor,” says Field, “in that he really understands the mechanics of movies. So, we had a shorthand, as a practical matter I could run plot ideas by him to test their plausibility. My time with him also prepared me to ask tough questions of classic music professionals in Germany, who can be notoriously literal, and religiously protective of the thing they’re selling, which of course is beauty and respectability.”
“IT’S DIFFERENT OVER THERE”
To create a sense of authenticity, Field interviewed a number of German orchestra players, including the first female violaist in the history of the Munich Philharmonic. “She shared challenges she’d faced coming up — things that in a million years her male counterparts would never have had to face. The German-Austro classical music world is still very much frozen in time. Just look at the top orchestras. To this day, not one of them has appointed a female chief conductor. That in itself makes our film a fairy tale.”
MAHLER & ELGAR
“The Mahler V is a milestone, not just in the classical canon, but in other forms of music as well. It’s easy to fall in love with the third movement,” says Field. “For years I’d been obsessed with the subtle nuances of various recordings based on the orchestra, hall, and conductor. That is until I realized how many people’s first introduction to the piece was watching Visconti’s Death in Venice. So, when John asked me what my favorite piece of classical music was, I covered my eyes and became an apologist for the Adagietto. He scolded me, ‘No one truly serious about classical music is ever cynical about the Adagietto. Forget Visconti. Build your thing around the five.’ So, I did. The story would center on a conductor, the first principal female conductor in the history of this Berlin orchestra, and be framed over a three-week period that involves her preparing for a book launch in NY, in addition to a live performance in Berlin for a Deutsche Grammophon live recording of the Mahler V.
After this I wasn’t afraid of anti-populist pretensions and felt free to pursue music I deeply loved. One of those pieces was Elgar’s Cello Concerto. When Elgar wrote the concerto, it was unheard of for an orchestra to have female players. However, cellist Beatrice Harrison was the first to record it in front of the then all-male London Symphony Orchestra on Stage One at EMI (present day Abbey Road Studios) and with Elgar himself conducting.
The piece was all but forgotten until 1965 when Jacqueline du Pré recorded it with that same orchestra in the same studio as Harrison, only this time with Sir John Barbirolli conducting. The piece became so closely associated with du Pré that she kept it as part of her regular repertoire. In fact, it was the last thing she was ever to record before she died, when she returned to Studio One once more, only this time with her husband Daniel Barenboim conducting. It’s this recording that the cellist in the script Olga Metkina tells Tár is the reason she became a cellist in the first place.”
BUILDING A CHARACTER
“Cate and I started our work together in September 2020,” says Field. “She made two other films while she prepared for TÁR. She’d wrap during the day and call me at night, then put in several more hours of work. She learned to speak German, play the piano —yes that’s Cate playing, every note—and performed the most exhaustive amount of research. She’s a real autodidact, and she accomplished more in a year—again while making two other films—than Lydia Tár herself would have in 25. During production she didn’t sleep. After a day of shooting, she’d go straight to a piano, German, American-dialect, or baton technique/beat pattern lesson. She spent her ‘day off’ on a racetrack mapped out to the precise dimensions as the roundabout at Alexanderplatz to rehearse a scene with Nina Hoss, while swerving and braking at 60-miles per hour between eight cars driven by stunt people. There was absolutely nothing we could throw at her that she wouldn’t run with. She set the bar for everyone, and we had to do everything we possibly could just to try to keep up with her.”
Blanchett relished the intellectual charge of Field’s script, but connected with the story, first and foremost, on an instinctual, human level. “I could see there were many, many layers to peel back as I, along with the audience, discovered who this fascinating enigma Lydia Tar was. Todd has created an utterly unique creature.” Blanchett was also fascinated by the scripts rhythmic musical qualities and Todd’s unique approach to depicting the character.
“I am very language focused and when I read the script, there were many reference points I simply was not familiar with. I knew I needed to understand them inside and out so that the audience would trust that the character knew exactly what she was talking about at all times. Strangely, the audience does not need to know these references at all, they just need to know that Lydia is a genius.”
“I was riveted by this portrait of a woman unravelling but I also responded to the script on a rhythmic level through the music. Music is often a key for me as an actor for unlocking a character or the atmosphere, to finding a connection to the story. Todd’s film was turbo charged for me in this regard.”
For Field and Blanchett, working together prior to production became an exercise in atmosphere building as much as world building and character development. “We were finding things together that went through the material and beyond,” says Blanchett. “Todd is the most fearless and open-minded collaborator you could ever hope to work with. I would have a crazy idea and he would entertain it and text me at about 2:00AM and say, ‘I think I know how to make this work.’ He was gobsmackingly inventive. We took the characters further when we started to ask big questions like ‘what IS a process?’, ‘How transactional are the relationships in the script?’, ‘Are all the characters complicit in keeping this power structures functioning?’, ‘Is comfort possible when trying to shift a group of people somewhere new?’ ‘We love to admire the great, but do we equally love to watch them fall?’ These conversations helped shape Lydia too. Many of our grand narratives have collapsed, and I was fascinated by those people whose concerns are grand and overreaching but historically have not had access to such grandeur. What happens to great people who want to reach back and have access to the grandeur of the past in the minutia of the present?”
“Cate ingested the script, memorized it soup-to-nuts, then excavated it,” says Field. “She wanted to find out where everything in Tár’s orbit came from, so by the time we started shooting, she knew everything I did — in fact she’d gone beyond what I knew. She’d correct me during rehearsals and say it’s MTT, not Michael Tilson Thomas.”
“Conducting is no easy task, and I was blown away by how much effort Cate put into her performance through all the influences she had taken on board, and how she managed to create somebody entirely new and original who also felt totally authentic and true to life,” says first-time actor Sophie Kauer, and real-life cellist who plays the young Russian cellist Olga Metkina.
“My starting point was the masterclasses of Ilya Musin, and the soul-searing documentary on Antonia Brico,” says Blanchett. “I watched Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Emmanuelle Haim, and Bernard Haitink to work out who Tar was not, but also who she aspired to be. Conducting is a language, a colossal act of creative communication. It’s so utterly idiosyncratic and personal. The gestural language was a great portal for me into the mindset of a master musician, but also to show me how she moved through the world.” Blanchett trained extensively with the conducting coach, Natalie Murray Beale, but is quick to point out that “training for this role required piano, dialect, and language lessons. All practical mechanical things within this character’s skillset. However, they are not the character. This is not a film merely about conducting. That is just something essential that the character does, like breathing. The real challenge for me as a performer was to get inside the head of someone estranged from herself. She has forgotten, she has stepped away from the ‘Why?’ and by seeking to establish a legacy, she has broken the connection to the music. Tar is someone with a powerful inner critic that unconsciously subscribes to the notion that if you’re perfect, no one can hurt you. But of course, perfection is impossible in art. Art is full of imperfection and grey areas, and there lies the rub.”
“I understood in my small way what it was like to run a major cultural institution,” says Blanchett who was co-Artistic Director and co-CEO of the Sydney Theater Company with her husband, Andrew Upton, for almost a decade. “Having that level of cultural and physical responsibility can be intensely lonely and thankless at times, just as much as it can be the greatest challenge of one’s career. 70% of our times as artists was spent running the actual organization. The building, the schedule, the sponsors, the audience interface, and of course dealing with company politics, human resources, and government funding.” Her experience helped the academy award-winning actress understand the inner workings of an artistic ensemble – and a demanding, often volatile character who wears both hats in a German orchestra. “The creative and physical buck absolutely stopped with us, but when we assumed the job, we took the desk out of our office, and we consulted with our staff in a meaningful way about artistic decisions. I’m sure many, at first, who may have been accustomed to a more hierarchical approach thought, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing.’ They weren’t used to working in a more democratic way. Traditionally, the classical music world, like many institutions, does not have an agreement like this. Tar, for example, is expected to be a force of one. As a conductor, the music flows through her, but there are no samplers of people in her position. The only examples have been the great, tyrant males of the classical canon like Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan.