Films about classical music and the artists who inhabit this world are becoming all the rage. Over the past year, I have seen a documentary about Marin Alsop, learned of an upcoming biopic about Leonard Bernstein, and discovered the recently released Tár. I know of planned films about Mahler as well as a fictional movie about a composer who writes his masterpiece while isolated in a castle.
Wonderful! The public is getting glimpses into the lives of those who create and participate as recreators as well. Exactly what audience these movies are intended for is an open question.
That thought kept running through my mind as I watched Tár, the two-and-a-half-hour screen drama written and produced by Todd Field. Although he had not made a film in sixteen years, this one brings him back in a stylized account of a conductor’s trials, triumphs, and tribulations. Although the story is fictional, much of the content is based on fact. Indeed, this is possibly the best-researched film about the classical music industry ever made.
It has been in theaters for about a month. I was in Europe at the time of its U.S. release, and it is not yet playing there. In fact, even in Germany, where much of it is set, the film will not come out until February 2023. One could surmise that it needed early distribution in the States to qualify for the upcoming Oscars.
And qualify it certainly does. If nothing else, Cate Blanchett turns in an astonishing performance, one that has her front and center for almost every scene. Most of the time, she is engaged in conversations, meetings, and confrontations, but there is surprisingly little of her actually conducting—only bits of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. More about that a later.
The character’s life is complex. Lydia Tár grapples with the struggles women have faced in the musical marketplace. In a profession dominated by males, mostly white and European, she continues the industry’s battles against sexism, class bias, and racial discrimination. This is all summed up early in the film when she is being interviewed by a reporter from the New Yorker magazine—in actuality, the real-life journalist Adam Gopnik. He rattles off a long list of awards and accolades as Lydia sits there, quietly enjoying the adulation.
Most of the time, we are made aware of her life through her current relationships—with her personal assistant, her wife Sharon, and other characters who shape her public image into yet another ego-inflated conductor, much like some of the real-life maestros who are mentioned by name. That is important as the film slowly unwinds to reveal a darker past than was suspected.
She is the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, making her the first woman in the world to hold a position of such musical power and influence. But everyone treats her as a dominant figure because of her talent, not her sex. She is strong-willed, supposedly willing to listen to advice but always taking her own path and usually ignoring what she has been told.
In a masterclass at Juilliard (although I did not recognize the room where this took place), she confronts and pretty much demolishes a clearly insecure and nervous conducting student, reducing him to a stereotype before he leaves in distraught anger. In today’s world, this would have gotten Lydia fired on the spot.
As revelations about her past relationships are brought to light, we begin to get information about her background that probably should have been clarified a little earlier. It was most likely Field’s intention to deconstruct Lydia as events unfold in real time. The tension that has been building up explodes when one of her fellowship recipients commits suicide and Lydia is implicated. At this point, the film becomes rather obvious, and the last hour is spent mostly fleshing out details.
The story culminates in what can be described as a psychotic breakdown, but quite extreme, given that we are not really prepared for it. Up until this point, more than two hours into the film, there have been few, if any, indicators of Lydia’s fragility or even her mental state. A coda of sorts follows, but this, too, seems out of touch with the overall aim of the material.
As a conductor, Blanchett does a more-than-credible job of emulating a podium presence. But make no mistake, she is not actually the one conducting. Like all films of this genre, the soundtrack is pre-recorded, usually with someone else leading the orchestra. Basically, the actor is body syncing, and although her gestures are wildly over the top, for the most part, she is together with the music. That is until we come to the Elgar, where things go awry in several departments.
Lydia is not coordinated with the orchestra. The concertmaster, who is also Lydia’s wife, clearly cannot play the violin. She has little to no vibrato and seems distracted from the music most of the time. However, the young woman who performs the solos in the Elgar, Sophie Kauer, is terrific and very convincing playing Olga, the Russian cellist who attracts Lydia’s attention. It turns out that Kauer was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is working toward her degree in cello performance at the Norwegian Academy of Music.
The orchestral sound is, at best, murky in the Mahler, as if it had been recorded in a very large bathroom. It is clear that a real orchestra was used for the cameras, and they too are syncing to a pre-recorded track. A most uncomfortable-looking principal trumpet performs the opening of the Mahler, which Lydia wants offstage, quite nicely. Lydia rehearses using a combination of German and English, and surprisingly, we do not get translations of what she is saying. This could have been helpful to gain insight into the world Lydia inhabits. We learn at the beginning of the film that her chief mentor and inspiration was Leonard Bernstein. Certainly whoever conducted the actual soundtrack of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony tried to emulate this with a more-than-excruciatingly-slow rendition.
There are moments when Blanchett is at the piano, and either she studied at some point or actually plays these brief bits herself. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, and the actors are convincing when speaking about lofty matters of musical theory and performance.
The film is riveting, certainly, but also frustrating. To start with, in what has to be one of the most annoying experiences I have ever had at a movie theater, the end credits actually appear at the start of the film. They are shown in an almost unreadable font and seem to take up at least five minutes of the run time. If you want to know who did what, stick around until the story is over.
Certain scenes depict situations that may seem plausible to the non-orchestral player but are simply not in practice in real life. Although we get a glimpse into the world of the “blind audition,” this process should have been made clearer for the viewer. Especially unrealistic is the announcement by Lydia that the Elgar Concerto will be the companion work on the album with the Mahler. She tells them that it is only right for a member of the orchestra to be the soloist and that the player would be decided by an audition to be held in just three days, as if all the cellists had this ready to go.
In the world of this film, the orchestra must approve what they record, and here they go along with their director. However, in today’s orchestral world, a decision such as this would not be in the musicians’ purview. They do what is scheduled, whether they like it or not. Orchestras are not democracies, even though they have more authority now than in the past. But this film is not a documentary, so we can probably leave many of these little things alone.
Still, I found a couple aspects of the film troubling. First, much of the dialogue is either whispered or spoken so softly that the audience cannot understand what is being said. This is probably intentional, but I kept thinking that perhaps I missed a crucial word or two that might have clarified some elements of the story.
Second, the photographic style of the film is a bit on the dark and hazy side, again possibly intentionally. But I wanted more clarity, as some of the longer set pieces felt trapped in their own limited visual space. There is a little too much of Kubrick’s influence when it comes to shots that feature an actor in a large space at a distance from the camera.
With all that said, I was engrossed for the entire length of the film. It is certainly worth seeing, but viewers need more than a passing knowledge of classical music to appreciate many of the references made.
I give the film three-and-a-half gold batons out of five.
November 6, 2022