The protagonist in Todd Field’s new movie, which is written and directed by him, is almost constantly disrupted from her crucial tasks by external noise throughout the film. The noises in the movie include a doorbell (or something that sounds like one), dinging–our title character, Lydia Tár, almost automatically reproduces its two notes on her piano after being bothered by them–a metronome ticking, people pounding on doors, and more. The noises are produced by an audio design that is disturbingly precise in its directional placement—we are as startled by them as Lydia is.
Is there any way out of the cacophony? This was something I was reminded of by the Dadaist sample-based music group Negativland’s 1980s recording, in which they lamented: “Is there any way to escape from noise?” In our reality, as it happens, the answer is “No.” Or perhaps “Not completely.” Field’s first feature film in 16 years, which conjured Lydia Tár’s world – created with great agility and grace and mystery by Field in his debut feature film – is one in which a near-impossible escape is attempted via music. Classical music, more particularly classical music that aspires to sublimity, is used.
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Lydia Tár is one of the marvels of the classical world, played with intense and unbroken dedication by Cate Blanchett. She is an extremely talented pianist, a passionate ethnomusicologist, and a determined popularizer—a rare achievement for anyone in the classical music world. As a conductor wrapping up the recording of a cycle of Mahler symphonies, Lydia requires peace and quiet to do the work she’s so ardently committed to.
Whether or not applause is considered noise is irrelevant when you have an audience that loves you. In the opening scene of the movie, a Lydia walks out onto stage to a roaring and thunderous crowd. She’s not there to perform, but to be interviewed as part of one of those culture festivals great metropolitan areas hold every now and then. Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, plays himself in the film, possibly lacking in self-awareness—the flash in his eye when he interviews Lydia is one of an inveterate, serenely self-satisfied know-it-all. By establishing Lydia’s cultural background in this scene, the viewer anticipates a film that will illustrate how her social status is achieved.
Lydia is a very busy woman. Although she has a quiet, sad, and efficient helper named Francesca (Noémie Merlant), Lydia treats her with less warmth than other people might use for the AI assistants Siri or Alexa. Francesca looks on as Lydia, in an advanced conducting seminar at Juilliard, passionately and profanely argues against aspects of identity culture after one of her students says with flat arrogance that they can’t get into Bach because the composer was patriarchal. Before she departs New York to go back to her home in Berlin, where she will be putting the finishing touches on her Mahler cycle by recording the Fifth symphony, she has lunch with another conductor, Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong). He gossips with her like a peer but he clearly envies her. She tells him of an opportunity that came up for an orchestra in Berlin and how it includes “rotating” an older colleague whose ear isn’t what it used to be.
The conductor also has at least one pursuer. We see the back of someone’s head during the Gopnik interview, and we see an iPhone screen recording Lydia and texting snarky comments to someone on a FaceTime call. She is not well-liked by everyone.
Nor is she lovable. When Sharon returns home,lights are on in too many rooms of their bunker-like apartment and upbraids her wife for it. She believes that Sharon must be subsidizing the power utility bill. Also, Lydia has been hoarding pills that belong to Sharon. Lydia dotes on her daughter, Petra, and the two are devoted to one another. During Lydia’s world is crumbling around her, Sharon (who happens to be the orchestra’s concertmaster) remarks that Lydia’s relationship with Petra is the only non-transactional connection in her life.
In a way, this is accurate. By always asking questions, she serves the composer to the best of her ability. She is slighty old-fashioned in her taste. Although Gopnik introduces her as a lover of female composers, including Julia Wolfe, she critique the Icelandic musician Anna Thorvaldsdottir as being only concerned with sex appeal and guilty of what Lydia considers the greatest artistic crime: having vague intentions. (All of the musicians referenced in the film are real; this is also a meticulously researched work.)
By nature, she is self-centered and always puts herself first. She only thinks about Lydia Tár’s needs and wants. In Berlin, the suicide of a one of her former protégés shocks her to her core. As she tries to cover up any evidence that could incriminate her in this matter by having Francesca do the same, erasing emails etc., Lydia sets sights on Olga (Sophie Kauer), a very talented young cellist playing in the senior orchestra. The actor playing the part is a superb player, as the audition scene makes clear. However, still. Lydia’s gaze at their first lunch with Olga is practically man-wolfish.
“Tár” is an art film that also has a shot at the prestigious awards it deserves. The story unfolded in a way that was both intriguing and sometimes confusing; Field has come quite a long way from the 2006 bluntness of “Little Children.” The film’s final sequence, in particular, bears compositional affinities with Stanley Kubrick (for whom Field worked as an actor in 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Kubrick’s last feature), and Tarkovsky. However, the formal dexterity on display here is lower than in many other such movies. That is certainly true for the flawless performance.
Much has been said about how the film’s plot is inspired by current cases of corrupt and abusive behavior by artists in positions of power. Does Lydia Tár’s wonderful aspirations and accomplishments make up for her sometimes poor behavior, or is she still a good person? “TÁR” is not a film that merely criticizes Tár or the contemporary culture trying to debunk her, but rather one that shows skepticism towards both. It’s an interrogation at its core, designed to make the viewers consider their own opinion on the matter.
Cate BlanchettNoémie MerlantNina Hoss