Directed by Todd Field (2022)
To err is human; to forgive, Divine; to cancel, de rigueur.
Lydia Tár (not her real name?) is a pianist, ethnomusicologist, composer, and the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s as busy as a bee: at a festschrift, she plugs her new book to Adam Gopnik of the ‘New Yorker’ (they wouldn’t invite Steve Bannon, but this luvvie? No problem!) and she is preparing the forthcoming live recording of Mahler’s 5th. She’s teaching (and bullying) at Juilliard; lunching with a moneyman who wants to pick her brains; she’s hiring and firing; she’s leering at new talent, and ignoring the needy outreach of a young musician, Krista.
Then come unusual degrees of dissonance: Her ‘transactional relationships’ start falling apart – from marital troubles with wife Sharon, professional issues with PA Francesca and deputy conductor Sebastian (involving her mentor, Andris), an unrequited lunge for a young cellist Olga, and Krista suiciding. Lydia’s arrogance on the way to the top prompts swirling forces to pummel her on the way down: accusations cascade, of favouritism, sexual harassment and predatory conduct, bullying, spoliation of incriminating evidence, and marital insouciance. They all do her in eventually.
If not for two key factors, this film could have flopped completely. After all, the script is filled with things people would have liked to say (or not say) ex post facto: it is difficult to locate a single human one could admire; it is long, often opaque, and at times clichéd. What pull this piece into and near the head of the line are the delicious care taken in the direction, down to the very last detail, and the performances.
TVC has no wish, whatsoever, to meet Cate Blanchett – but clearly she is the best actor of the current generation. She’s virtually on screen all the time and manages to give us Lydia (Linda?) in full. It is a magnificent performance that never fails to convince, tasked as she is with not only portraying a leading conductor (not merely a matter of waving hands and sticks but full mental and physical respiration, the kind Alan Bates exhibits in The Shout), but responding to being subjected to the ominous, slightly surreal discordant sounds (like the broken string in The Cherry Orchard), images (weary sideways glances, SMS messages, a Handbag), physical twinges, and sundry horrific episodes strewn across Lydia’s path.
Likewise, the wheedling of Tár’s second conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner), her treacherous PA, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), and patron/colleague Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), might have struck false but for the skill of these actors and the sure touch of the director. It is a pity that Field has junked more projects than Orson Welles, over the last couple of decades.
There are signs of political predilection here, to be sure, probably to augment Oscar-favour, if anyone still takes that seriously. For example, the ‘New York Post’ is traduced as a ‘rag’ (although Hunter’s real actual laptop has more credibility than the ‘edited’ version of Tár’s lesson at Juilliard uploaded to social media). In an interview, she mentions the Hebrew term “kavanah” which draws a snide reference to the evil conservative Supreme Court Justice of a similar name. The Me Too (Her Too?) references seem a progressive strawman here, where we are meant to side with the ludicrous BIPOC student. It surely is no surprise in 2023 that nasty conduct is an equal opportunity employment. Sex, Nazism, moral relativism, all get a thorough rinse here, and not necessarily in a good way. Me Too, and the outrages of Weinstein et al that gave rise to Me Too, emanate of course from the same sources, well presented here: human perfidy, human cupidity, human betrayal, human cruelty. (We do it so much better than the lower animals, don’t we? Good old us.)
‘Tellings Off’ – Notable ones in film include Gregory Peck to Hugh Marlowe in Twelve O’Clock High; John Mills to Richard Attenborough in Morning Departure; George C. Scott to Tim Considine in Patton; Al Pacino to Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross. There are quite a few ‘tellings off’ in Tár ; the first (which we have alluded to above) being the somewhat over-freighted and expository scene where the conductor, in a class at Juilliard, mocks a student for rejecting the work of Bach because he was a white cis-gender male. It helps establish character and plot points, but demolishing a twit for confusing the singer with his song is taking candy from a baby. The other key telling-off is much more significant, and satisfying in a chilling way: Tár confronts a little bully in her daughter’s schoolyard.
Only a few other quibbles: whilst the motif of the badly-behaved, megalomaniacal conductor has the force of historical truth – think Toscanini and his smashed fob watch, Solti’s skull screaming, Fritz Reiner’s William-Wyler-like exhortation to a trumpeter to ‘Do it Again’, James Levine and his ‘inappropriate behaviour’ – we had difficulty accepting the deranged cathartic tantrum at the climactic live performance of Mahler’s 5th (even though there may be historical precedents). And surely, after a somewhat meandering set-up, her decline thereafter was a tad abrupt, (reduced to Staten Island and the Philippines, ye gods!) perhaps necessitated by the film’s length at 157 odd minutes? Finally, though touted by some as an examination of the creative impulse, it hardly does this (oddly, in the same way, Death in Venice also fails in this regard – perhaps only At Eternity’s Gate gets close to this elusive concept). But as an examination of power and its abuse, it succeeds splendidly.