No one but Cate Blanchett could have delivered the imperious hauteur necessary for this engrossing movie from writer-director Todd Field, about a globally renowned conductor heading for a crisis or crackup or creative breakthrough. 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. She holds the screen for two and a half hours, aided by Florian Hoffmeister’s epic cinematography, a tour de force of control, effortlessly keeping us waiting and guessing for an almost tantrically deferred climax. And when it comes, it is certainly shocking, if a little melodramatic and even absurd in ways that this ultra-stylish movie can’t quite absorb.
She plays Lydia Tár, imagined to be principal conductor of a major German orchestra, addressed by colleagues as “Maestro”. There are lots of scenes shot in the real concert hall, and Tár has an onstage interview with a real journalist: the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself – which could have been a gimmicky and self-conscious shortcut to authenticity, but isn’t. Tár is passionate, demanding, autocratic, with a rockstar prestige and an international touring lifestyle approaching that of the super-rich, and now very keyed up as she approaches her new challenge: a live recording of Mahler for Deutsche Grammophon. Tár is in a live-in relationship with her first violinist, played by Nina Hoss and they have a child. They live in a spectacular apartment, but Tár sentimentally keeps her scuzzy old Berlin flat as an office, bolt-hole and composition studio.
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 the new Russian cellist. Meanwhile, her guest masterclass at Juilliard goes horribly sour when a young student, identifying as BIPOC pangender, presumes to dismiss Bach on ideological grounds and Tár humiliates this young Gen Z.
And all the time, 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. Tár threatens a little girl at her daughter’s school that she hears is a bully. And the music itself, so far from being an emollient, amplifies the violence just beneath the surface. It could be that Todd Field has fallen under the spell of the maestro himself, Austrian director Michael Haneke, with these ideas about surveillance, the return of the repressed and the tyranny and cruelty in the bürgerliche European classical music tradition.
Tár has a job in which hubris pretty much comes with the territory: like a field marshal, you have a baton. There’s no point in being a conductor who is shy and retiring: the job requires you to stand in front of musicians on a podium, directing them with extravagant gestures. And Tár has a natural way with all this, with all the politics, and the diplomacy and the media-management. She has invented herself through conducting: no other profession and no other kind of musical career could have done it. And there is something genuinely moving when we see her watch an old video of Leonard Bernstein teaching children about music. I am not sure that all the film’s disparate and intriguing tics and hints and feints all come satisfactorily together, but what a colossal performance from Cate Blanchett.