Lydia Tár is a composer and world-class conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. She is one of those rare conductors who has shattered the ceiling for both women and those in the LGBTQ community. Lydia is a lesbian and in a relationship with the orchestra’s concertmaster Sharon Goodnow. Lydia has won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.
Her star is continuing to ascend as she prepares her orchestra to perform and record Mahler’s 5th Symphony, thus completing an elusive cycle of Mahler recordings (she has recorded all but the 5th). In addition to conducting the orchestra, she gives readings for her upcoming book, “Tár on Tár,” as well as guest teaching at Julliard. However, as she gets closer to her crowning achievement with the upcoming Mahler concert, things in her life start to go awry. First, a student she previously worked with is cyber-stalking her with endless e-mails. Lydia then starts to receive anonymous gifts of a disturbing nature. She starts hearing noises in the home she shares with Sharon. A curious geometric pattern also resurfaces in her daily life, even in her own home. The student who had been cyber-stalking her suddenly committed suicide. The e-mails that the student sent are now coming to light. There is also a new Russian cellist that Lydia seems to have more than just a professional interest. Can she hold it together in time to complete her life’s dream?
TÁR had two things that made me want to see this film. First, it stars Cate Blanchett. She has shown in the past that she is an acting force of nature. She has given us characters with enormous grace and poise (Galadriel), she has demonstrated a rather sly comedic side to her acting ability (Florence Zimmerman from The House with a Clock in Its Walls), and she’s even been somewhat villainous as the wicked stepmother in the 2015 Cinderella. However, what we get here doesn’t compare to her previous roles. For starters, watching her either behind the podium to conduct or hearing her in conversation with friends and colleagues, you would believe that Blanchett has years and years of music education behind her. It isn’t just in the language and the words she uses but also in the subtext. She shows enormous confidence in speaking the musical language I call “musical shorthand” and delivers it perfectly. When she is behind the podium rehearsing the orchestra (the movie used the Dresden Orchestra, which Blanchett conducted for the filming of this movie), her directions feel real. There were many moments during such scenes that I forgot I was watching a movie but felt I was sitting in the hall as the orchestra was rehearsing. The way Blanchett conducted the Dresden Orchestra (who did play in this film) was precise in every detail, from the more technical elements of the music to the emotional sculpting and interpretation of Mahler’s symphony. All of it felt real.
However, there is another side to TÁR. As much as there are some wonderful classical music moments, this film is also partly a psychological horror. Lydia’s personal life appears to be spinning out of control. She has an assistant who she takes advantage of as well as grants personal favors to people she likes. When some of these bad decisions start to come home to roost, we see Blanchett’s performance wind up in a way that is both hypnotic and terrifying at the same time. In a climactic scene, I once again forgot that I was watching a movie and thought I was in a music hall witnessing something so utterly horrific and shocking that it made me want to run away, yet I could not look away. This is a performance that will have Oscar knocking on her door.
There were other good performances, but the one that must be mentioned is that of Sophie Kauer as the Russian cellist Olga who captures Lydia’s eye. TÁR is her feature film debut. On top of being a surprisingly good actress, she is also a professional cellist and has been playing for years. When we see Olga play, it really is Kauer playing the instrument, and when she does play, it is nothing less than inspirational.
As for the craftsmanship of TÁR, this film is also a visual work of art. There is a certain starkness to the cinematography and the set designs that provide a sense of discomfort or foreboding. It’s as if the scenes we see reflect the world that Lydia has built for herself, but there is an emptiness suggesting that Lydia’s life is nothing more than a house of cards. Some scenes were very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, making this film captivating to watch.
With all these wonderful elements in this film, TÁR is not perfect. There are a few plot points that never get resolved. For example, Lydia realizes that a score is missing from a shelf in her home. When it does show up, it is never explained how it got there. She hears noises in her home that are not adequately addressed, leaving the viewer with the question of whether she is imagining any of this. We see early on that Lydia suffers from some form of mental illness, initially exhibited by a particular obsessive-compulsive disorder with being as germ-free as possible. Does her mental illness escalate to where she starts having paranoid delusions? Just as with the noises and the missing music score, it’s a question that is never answered.
There is also one other curious aspect of this film that serves as a double-edged sword. The dialogue in TÁR is perfect. This is precisely how professional musicians speak to one another. However, the language and terms used went over the heads of most of the people in the theater, leaving them somewhat in the dark with what was being talked about. These scenes did not directly impact the direction of the story, but it could leave many feeling somewhat lost and unsatisfied. Having grown up in a musical family, I did get every music reference spoken (there were moments where I was the only one laughing in the theater because I “got the joke” that was part of this dialogue). Having dialogue this accurate is what gave the film its sense of authenticity, but it left other people somewhat in the dark.
TÁR is ultimately about the abuse of power. The film even references past masterful conductors who have had their own fall from grace because of allegations of impropriety that were levied against them. What makes this fascinating is that early in the film when Lydia is serving as a guest lecturer at Juilliard, she gets tough with a student who does not like J.S. Bach. Is it his music? No. He doesn’t like Bach because of the kind of man he was when he was alive. This causes Lydia to have an interesting conversation about separating the art from the artist. This creates an unusual parallel in the film regarding Lydia. She’s not necessarily a good person all the time. Most of the time, she’s self-serving and doesn’t care who she steps on. In this fictitious world of Lydia Tár, will people be able to separate the work from the person that Lydia is, and will that work be celebrated?
TÁR is a fascinating film that makes uncomfortable points about how some in positions of power and authority have abused it. Writer/Director Todd Field peels back the curtain and shows what goes on in the lives of world-class conductors and the orchestras they conduct. It also shows an actress whose performance is more than just intense. While watching Cate Blanchett, I forgot I was watching Cate Blanchett. I thought I was watching the life of Lydia Tár. Lastly, TÁR is not just a movie… It is a masterclass into the world of classical music, and Cate Blanchett is its teacher.
For its impressive performances and near-perfect storytelling, I give TÁR 4 out of 5 Scores.
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.
TÁR opens in select theaters nationwide on Friday, October 14, 2022, and then opens in wide release on Friday, October 21, 2022.
ONE-LINER: Set in the international world of Western classical music, the film centers on Lydia Tár, widely considered one of the greatest living composer-conductors and first-ever female music director of a major German orchestra.