It takes a certain bravery, on the part of a filmmaker, to put their own creative instincts on screen up against the grandeur of a gold-plated masterpiece. But so it is in Tár, where an imagined maestro on the podium of the Berlin philharmonic grapples with Mahler’s Fifth, battling everyone from the orchestra itself to her daughter’s schoolyard bully.
The conductor’s right hand, Lydia Tár reminds us, holds time. “Time is the thing,” she tells a New Yorker journalist, in the eye-roll-extravaganza interview sequence that opens Todd Field’s magnificent new feature film. This is our introduction to Cate Blanchett’s spellbinding portrayal of a high-profile artist who buzzes with a nervous, prickly energy in desperate need of release. She finds it on the podium of course, in the wild contortions with which she leads her musicians. But outside of that small, bounded place, where she can claim to control time itself, we witness someone guarded and calculating, haunted in private moments by stray sounds and ghostly reminiscences.
The film begins with the apex of Lydia Tár’s career fast approaching. She is about to complete something unprecedented: recording all nine of Mahler’s symphonies with the same orchestra. The most popular, the fifth, has been left until last. She can turn for help to her modest assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who harbours her own aspirations to conduct, and her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also first chair violinist. This central trio bounce off one another perfectly, establishing the network of loyalties against which Tár’s decisions and duplicities can be judged.
One of the great set-pieces in the film comes early on, during a guest seminar at Juilliard where Tár gets into a lengthy argument about the relevance of Bach in the era of identity politics. Twinned with whispers from Francesca that a former protégé is sending unnerving emails late at night, it is clear that our sharp-tongued conductor has made social brutality something of a habit. Given Tár’s callousness and condescension (“hope dies last”, she says of this young woman’s struggles), a hefty serving of humble pie seems a perfect accompaniment to the exquisite music.
A comparison can be drawn between Lydia Tár and that other captivating perfectionist, Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread – the two would make for a sumptuous double feature (breakfast followed by a power lunch). But where the latter is all romance, this is straight tragedy with an almost symphonic texture. It can move at a fast clip, overwhelming you with detail, only to slow for a moment or two, allowing you to marvel more fully at this strange public figure and her internal hive of neuroses. The climax, brought on by these borderline fascistic tendencies, is like watching a car speed off a cliff to the sound of a drawn-out timpani roll. This film will draw you in and demand a second viewing.
Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom