The thought of watching a 2-hour 37-minute drama about a female concert conductor with an odd title may not be the most inviting thing you will hear. However, forget about the subject matter, for this is an extraordinary piece of cinema from a director whose last film, Little Children, was made 16 years ago. It also has one of the most electrifying performances from an actress you thought couldn’t get any better, but it proves us wrong again. It will also leave you with questions about cancel culture and abuse of power. It will be, without a doubt, a film that should appear in my top ten at the end of the year.
Lydia Tár is a phenomenon. Regarded as one of the best conductors of her generation, she is planning to handle a masterpiece, a live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. while at the same time releasing her memoirs. However, her personal life is not as controlled as her time on the podium. She seems to abuse her power by manipulating her PA, Francesca, into believing there will be a promotion for her; she breaks the conventions of the orchestra by offering a solo to a new member because she has become almost infatuated with her, and in the background is an incident involving another promising young conductor that could be the downfall of the maestro.
Todd Field’s film is undoubtedly high-brow compared to other dramas usually coming out of Hollywood. After a start that involves the credits you would expect to see at the end of the picture, the film has a long conversation with Lydia being interviewed on stage, where we are told everything about her professional life. We get a sense of the conductor’s approach to music and the orchestra. This is followed by another long scene, where we witness Tár teaching and belittling a student for his reasons behind refusing to play Bach, a scene that ends with the student so humiliated he leaves the class. In these two sequences, we learn so much about the main character: arrogant, pretentious, opinionated, almost contained within her brilliance. Yet these strong characteristics hide a flawed and, some might say, dangerous woman.
We then follow Tár as she prepares for the performance. Her relationship with her PA, who obviously adores her. Her partnership with lead violinist Sharon and their adopted daughter, who is being bullied at school, with Lydia shows her sense of power by threatening the girl involved. We see her as a highly respected voice within the Berlin orchestra, where she will take down anyone who criticises her. She is a woman who enjoys being in control, and yet not everything is that straightforward.
Field’s film is full of ambiguities. We are given little nibbles that something is afoot in Lydia’s life. Still, he keeps some information back, and it’s not until at least halfway through that we learn of some improprieties that Lydia has been involved with, leading to a tragedy and Tár’s determination to hide any connection with the event. Yet, with the appearance of a young and talented cellist, Lydia is taken aback, and all the things that led to the previous issues start again.
This is a film that takes abuse of power and how we react to that abuse, and while not subtle, it’s a topic that is around us all the time. Social media is used as a weapon to bring down the powerful. How decisions can destroy a career, either promising or established. This doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the world of celebrity, no matter in what field, you have to almost tiptoe around what you do or say.
The cast does an exceptional job, notably, Noémie Merlant, so good in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as Francesca, the downtrodden PA, quietly hides in the background, and yet her presence is constantly felt. Nina Hoss, as Sharon, Lydia’s partner, is terrific, having to deal with the ego while being a calming influence on her. Look out for an almost unrecognisable Mark Strong as a fellow conductor.
Yet this is Cate Blanchett’s film. As Lydia, she commands every scene. She juggles the maestro’s arrogance while dealing with her life’s problems that become more like a horror than a straightforward drama. She shows the passion, pain, and cruelty of a woman wanting to keep the status of the best while obviously being flawed in every way. She is mesmerising when she is on the podium, making you forget you are watching an actress who has learnt to be a conductor, believing she is. It’s a full-throttle, multi-layered performance that even Ms Blanchett may never be better at.
Tár may not be everyone’s cup of tea, as he handles big subjects in a wordy and often intelligent manner. Yet it is an important film and proof, if we need one, that cinema can deal with hot topics without sensationalizing them. It is a film that will stay with me for a long time and a performance that will be hard to beat at the Awards this year.
5 out of 5
Director: Todd Field
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Sophie Kauer, Mark Strong, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Sydney Lemmon
Written by: Todd Field
Running Time: 157 mins
Release date: 13th January 2023