Full disclosure: I suck at fathoming and sorting the full breadth and scope of classical music in all its storied splendor. I can be taught, but my retention sucks through no conscious choice on my part. My wife Anne is far more skilled at recognizing symphonies and suites, catching nuances, spotting themes in film scores and remembering titles of lyricless songs. But she hasn’t seen Tár and prefers to let/watch/make me write my own blog, so here we are with a philistine on the keys, hopefully not too tone-deaf.
Not that I wasn’t looking forward to this! I still recall writer/director Todd Field’s debut, 2001’s In the Bedroom, a Best Picture nominee in which Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek were equally moving as parents dealing with the death of their adult son, Terminator 3‘s John Connor. I never got around to his follow-up Little Children, but that’s my fault, not Field’s. This time I didn’t wait to be prompted by my annual Oscar quest to run out and catch his next work, a taut drama so impeccably dressed and so meticulously crafted within its very specific milieu that you’re halfway into the film before you realize you’re viewing the entire edifice through an unreliable vantage.
In case of ignoramuses like myself, the proceedings commence with a deep-dive infodump tailored into a convention-style Q&A event hosted by actual New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik for value-added verisimilitude. His special guest for the evening is Our Antiheroine, the fictional world-famous conductor Lydia Tár played by Cate Blanchett. Presently and proudly employed by die Berliner Philharmoniker, in the classical arena she’s heard it all, judged it all, conducted it all, and ostensibly bettered it for all, which we know from all the obsequious dropped jaws that surround her every public appearance.
The extended panel/primer covers every topic from “What is it like being a woman in conducting” to “Why don’t we just replace conductors with metronomes”. For further milieu-setting we join her at lunch with a colleague in the field (Mark Strong from Green Lantern, Stardust, and countless others). Later still we meet one of the precious few personalities venerated even by Lydia, an elderly authority played by Julian Glover (Empire Strikes Back, Last Crusade, Chamber of Secrets, et cetera). Along the way, Field hits us with arrays of bullet-pointed context — the List of Other Real Women Conductors to confirm Lydia is no anomaly; the Collages of Cate Blanchett Headshots Pasted Onto Real Magazine Covers, as further groveling demos; the Naming of Sexual Harassers in Classical Music Across the Centuries, because it isn’t a new kind of terror; and so on.
Offstage we learn more of the film’s historical insertions and a lot more of Lydia’s candid opinions about her peers and her other works that the podium has made possible (charities and so forth). She’s well aware she’s the biggest rock star in her field and fandom, the sort of genius who has nary an ounce of modesty about it. Anyone who shows the slightest weakness, dissent, or tedium in her presence is labeled a “robot” and written off. She’s uninterested in whether her opinions adhere to 21st-century progressive tracks, which she vehemently and cockily demonstrates in a classroom chat between her and a self-labeled “BIPOC pangender” student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist). It begins amiably enough with them sharing riffs on a theme in the mode of NPR’s “Piano Puzzlers” (Anne is a big fan), pivots abruptly with the youngster’s dismissal of Bach’s entire body of work due to elderly whiteness and literally no scholarly reason, gets harsh as she rolls her eyes and decries how “the narcissism of small differences leads to conformity,” and ends with her opponent hurling profane sexism in her face before a fuming retreat. Her own pulse never rises above 85.
Though we’re asked to set that jarring conflict aside for the moment, Blanchett and Field continue curating her lofty status to the nth degree and placed her on the highest pedestal possible with no signs of being “canceled” at first. Some of her movements and emphases seem pompously exaggerated, but having watched very few conductors closely ever since I quit the school band after ninth grade, I wouldn’t know how much gesturing is too much. Suffice it to say she’s the best there is as what she does, and what she does can be really pretty…on the surface. We’re kept so closely to her side that we might overlook the little signs amiss, same as she does — distracted as she is by her own preoccupations.
Among other ongoing projects, she oversees a program that provides resources and encouragement for other, younger women who want to grow up to become conductors just like her. Past beneficiaries of her attentions likely include her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss from Homeland), who’s the Philharmoniker‘s concertmaster (look, I learned a new vocabulary word!) and therefore has a front row seat for any rehearsal shenanigans. They also include her personal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire), who’s super organized, patient, and forgiving until she’s passed over for a dream position for which she thought she’d done everything asked of her. Like, everything. Is there a shorthand sanctioned by the Lincoln Center for the Arts I could use to signify “wink wink” here?
And then there’s Krista (Sylvia Flote), a past protege more heard than seen. Her multiple attempts to reach out to Lydia grow more frantic with every unexplained dismissal. Something clearly went wrong in Krista’s life journey, but Lydia refuses to acknowledge her or whatever happened. Krista is officially cut off and not taking it well. Meanwhile Lydia has turned her attentions to an up-‘n’-coming cellist named Olga (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s unwittingly caught her eye. Every time Lydia gazes upon her, you can almost hear a Muzak version of “Dream Weaver” playing in her head. But, y’know, a thoroughly classy Muzak version. When the rookie starts coincidentally rising quickly up the ranks, everyone starts losing their facades and their tempers — Sophie, Francesca, even the first-chair cellist (Lydia Schamschula) who can not believe what she is seeing.
Far as Lydia’s concerned, nothing is wrong, everything is fine, how she apportions her favors in exchange for certain indulgences is totally her business as Best Maestra Ever, and no, they’re all the ones letting their emotions blind them. Throughout the film we see Lydia’s constant irritation with small noises around her (going so far as to cite a famous Schopenhauer essay how it’s totally a sign that she’s a Super Genius), and yet, as her abuses add up and their consequences slowly snowball, her narrowed circles of perception prevent her from sensing the reactions of everyone she’s touched (in all senses of the word). Some of those whelps are smarter than she thinks. Ultimately she’s better at leading a room than reading a room.
Like many a justifiable downfall we’ve witnessed in the #MeToo era, Lydia thinks she’s too big to fail, too important to be held accountable, and too treasured for anything she does to be judged as “wrong”. Blanchett perfectly encapsulates the sort of entitled egoist who believes their extraordinary talents gives them free passes to all their wants, no matter how short-term they might be or who they harm. Had this been a fake biopic of some fat, hairy predator named Leonard Taar, the film could’ve written itself and everyone would high-five yet another Harvey Weinstein parable (not that I’m tired of those yet). Blanchett and Field conspire to take another road less traveled, on a path with far fewer footprints, and subtly suggest that while one gender seems statistically most prone to, and most responsible for, ugly workplace sins, we males don’t have a 100% monopoly on it. Corruption knows no gender limits. (Examples abound in other areas. The worse American politics get, the easier it gets to concede awfulness can be an omnipartisan, unisex infection.)
It’s a relief the film is never explicit about any of this. We don’t see what’s actually occurred in the past, no flashbacks or origin stories, because Lydia never thinks about it. All her relationships and flings are limited to the subconscious level, felt but not explored, because that way might lie recriminations or self-reflection. She tells herself she has more important things to concentrate on, such as the Big Concert coming up, in which the orchestra will be playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (which I’d just heard used when I saw Decision to Leave the night before) and Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor. As practice continues and classical Easter eggs surely fly far over my head, conditions deteriorate, a reckoning might be at hand, and, to my ultimate surprise, Tár‘s final ten minutes are by far its funniest.
If you’re a classical music connoisseur, you might have more nitpicks than I did, or you might see other levels I’m missing. Apart from one superfluous addition near the end (a manipulated video that didn’t need to be to achieve its goal), Tár came off to this amateur as an adroit, ornate, fascinating cautionary tale that requires no advanced degree to understand or appreciate. If someone at home can explain the parts you didn’t get, so much the better.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other folks you might recognize include Sydney Lemmon (Fear the Walking Dead, the forgotten Helstrom) as a Tár superfan; Allan Corduner, who played Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and whom I would’ve seen as an Israeli prosecutor in Operation Finale, as one of Lydia’s less desirable subordinates; and Lee R. Sellars (a recurring cop on Luke Cage) as someone who’s known Lydia longer than anyone else mentioned above. If you listen to the radios far more closely than I did, you might catch Alec Baldwin in his real-life moonlighting gig as an NPR host.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the end credits. Curiously the film opens with nearly all the credits, as Ye Olde Hollywood would do back in the day, except back then they would’ve only named fifteen or twenty people, tops. Tár‘s end credits are reserved only for the cast, the hundreds of contributing musicians in their respective symphonies, and all musical numbers involved, from the longest symphony down to my personal favorite, the rage-fueled punk banger that is “Apartment for Sale”.