As many as a printed bag can remind us, women who behave well are rare to make it in history. What does this mean? There’s a tendency to romanticize the idea of the complicated woman, as if that adjective were an automatic badge of honor. Is it a sign that a woman can be independent, brave or intelligent? Are they just too difficult? And what man ever gets praised for being “complicated”?
In writer-director Todd Field’s dazzling, uncompromising high-wire act Tár—playing at the 79 Venice Film Festival—Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a conductor at the top of her game, and of her world. We don’t see her struggling to be the best, or complaining about how hard it is to be recognized in a field dominated by men. She actually believes that female conductors do not have to feel disenfranchised or discriminated against. Lydia believes that her intelligence is more important than money or power, which can fuel men’s sense of entitlement. She gets what she wants and doesn’t care about the earth. She’s great and awful in equal measure, so compelling you can’t turn away from her, but also touching in a way that never courts our pity. She’s unlike anyone we’ve ever seen onscreen, which may help explain why this is only Field’s third movie as a director, even though he has worked steadily through the years as an actor: he’s obviously a guy who waits for the right one to come along.
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Tár, Field’s first film in 16 years, is extraordinary. It’s also, in places, disconcertingly chilly and remote, possibly the kind of movie that’s easier to love than it is to like. But people will surely be talking about it, and about Blanchett’s performance specifically. Blanchett can, despite being extremely talented, be a bit too methodical. Her Oscar-winning 2014 role in Blue JasmineShe is ExhibitA; her precision tuning-fork technique hits every Blanche du Bois note. But she can also be a performer of great, near-alien strangeness and beauty, and that’s the subterranean current she’s tapping as Lydia Tár. It’s a charismatic and willful performance that is as stubborn as a vine, yet elegant.
When it comes to telling us who Lydia is and what she’s about, Field and Blanchett throw us into the deep end without even asking if we can swim. We see Lydia preparing for a New York City on-stage conversation as the film begins. She’s turned out in supple, androgynous custom-made goods that seem to float on her body; she busies herself with breathing exercises as she waits in the wings. She’s all about preparation, which is a kind of control; with a sturdy diaphragm, you can conquer the world.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself, introduces her to the audience by reciting a seemingly endless list of her accomplishments: She’s the first woman to have been appointed principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. She’s nearly as well respected a composer as she is a conductor. Her soon to be published memoir is the type of title Norman Mailer would envy: Tár on Tár. Lydia deflects Gopnik’s fawning praise with withering modesty, and as the predictable Q&A-type questions start piling up, her answers race ahead, moving on multiple planes like dueling Double Dutch jump ropes, parabolas wriggling over and under one another like unmappable brain waves. She speaks of her idols, Bernstein and Mahler—she’s preparing a performance of the latter’s Symphony No. 5, Berlin. The idea that female conductors must be identified by the special, feminized version is ridiculed. maestra.(“They don’t call astronauts astronettes,” she says with a wan smile.) She rails against the perception of a conductor as a human metronome, but then doubles back to embrace it: “Time’s the thing,” she says, the essential component of interpretation. Blanchett, acting as an performer on purpose and swaggering around her mirror house, is Blanchett.
Lydia enjoys a prestigious job and a well-planned home. She lives in Berlin with her partner, Sharon (played by the great German actor Nina Hoss, whose name, if there were justice in the world, would be as big as Blanchett’s), and their grade-school-age daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who’s not as well-adjusted as she might be. The suggestion—and the reality—is that Lydia is so busy being Lydia Tár that she’s dropping the ball at home. But out in the world, she’s greatly in demand as an inspirational figure, and she lets no one off the hook. We see her giving a master class at Juilliard, and she thinks nothing of setting one kid straight when they explain that, “as a BIPOC, pan-gender person,” they fail to find much to respond to in a dead cis white male like Bach. Lydia is exasperated by that response, and says as much, in a highly undiplomatic way—but she also sits at the piano, with the student at her side, and eagerly runs through a few brief passages, as if to cut a path through the students’ collective dismissiveness. Bach, she explains as she spins out a phrase with a question mark built right in, “is never certain of anything.” She strives to counteract the reductive thinking that’s been programmed into these young people: “Don’t be so eager to be offended.”
But being on top of the world comes with its temptations, and it soon becomes clear that Lydia’s sexual indiscretions may not be the forgivable kind: she has used her influence not only to seduce others, but to hurt them. Lydia is gay—she describes herself cavalierly as a “U-Haul lesbian,” whatever that might mean—though it’s hard to conceive of her as a sexual being: she’s so brainy, so exacting, so in love with the notion of drawing magic out of thin air in the form of music, that there doesn’t seem to be room for a libido. But those who are close to her—like her ambitious assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who aspires to be a conductor herself, and her partner Sharon, who is also first violinist in her orchestra, and the first to notice when Lydia’s eye starts roving—have seen how successful a manipulator she is. The movie makes no excuses for Lydia’s behavior, and Blanchett’s performance faces it squarely. Lydia believes that she has control over everything, and Blanchett’s performance reflects this belief.
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Field’s previous two films were adapted from previously existing sources: BedroomFrom 2001 onwards, this was taken from an Andre Dubus short-story. Children under 5 from 2006, was based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name. However Tár,Blanchett was the one who wrote it, he said. His surefooted direction takes advantage of every gesture and line she makes. When Blanchett as Lydia stands before her musicians, she’s so open she may as well be listening through every pore. In her kingdom of woodwinds and strings, she can hear things we can’t, like the rush of wind beneath a bird’s wing—she knows intuitively whether that WhooshBlanchett can change the level of loudness or softness to suit her needs. Blanchett was able to play the piano, speak German and conduct an orchestra, but her role goes far beyond just memorization and research. Blanchett’s movements are balletic, precise and definitive. She is a woman who has a clear vision of her destiny. Tár doesn’t offer anything as comfortable as redemption, and it asks us to fall in love, at least a little, with a tyrant. How often are we able to see women being portrayed as admirable rather than magnificent? Lydia Tár is the antithesis of tote-bag feminism, not least because she knows that the power of a question is greater than that of a slogan.
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