(M) 158 minutes
Todd Field’s Tar breaks all the rules of conventional screenwriting. It begins with a long take dominated by dialogue in the service of one image – that of a supremely confident Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) painting a verbal self-portrait by describing her life as a celebrated conductor.
She’s being interviewed on stage by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik and is giving him an unashamedly intellectual rundown on the mechanics of music-making and the philosophy behind it.
Cate Blanchett as acclaimed conductor Lydia Tar.Credit:Focus Features
The tone is so elevated and, at the same time, so elliptical that you start to feel as if you’re watching a biographical documentary. Or maybe a filmed play. It certainly doesn’t look or sound like the kind of American movie that gets a cinema release these days. There’s a distinctly European feel to the way Field asks his audience to search out any clues that elaborate on his theme. On the other hand, the film does come from Focus Features, the company behind some of the most intelligent American pictures of the past 20 years, including Lost in Translation and Brokeback Mountain.
The suggestion that Field make a film about a conductor originally came from Focus, but Field did not expect them to accept the script he produced. It was to be his first film in 15 years and from interviews he’s given, it sounds as if he were a little afraid of it. But the green light went on and Blanchett’s performance has set it to blaze. She has immersed herself in every aspect of Tar’s character: her armouring of arrogance, her joy in the music, her damaging need to exert power and her vertiginous fall from grace. Blanchett, who has already won a Golden Globe for the role, deserves the awards.
Tar’s personality can be read in her every move: the athleticism of her style on the concert platform, the impatience with which she charges through life off the podium and the desperation in her eyes as her carefully constructed existence begins to fray and fall apart.
Blanchett immerses herself in every aspect of Tar’s character, including her damaging need to exert power.Credit:Focus Features
It happens as her career hits its peak. She is launching a memoir – modestly entitled Tar on Tar – and she’s rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Berlin where she lives with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss), the orchestra’s concertmaster and first violinist, and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). But we soon become acquainted with the quickness of her temper. It’s an early scene, a long unedited sequence in which Tar comes up against an equally confident young student who makes the mistake of telling her that he disdains Bach’s music because of the composer’s faults as a human being. There is little doubt as to who’s going to win that argument.
At this point, her ego looks to be in such rude health that no one could put a dent in it. It also needs regular exercise, hence her habit of playing favourites with the young female musicians she encounters. There’s a pattern to these relationships. They go through three stages – seduction, subjection and rejection – and her assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), an aspiring conductor, has reached stage two, while a former assistant is mired in stage three. We don’t meet her, but her agonised emails about an inability to find work are proof of Tar’s ruthless efforts to stymie her career.
It’s a film that already has a life beyond the screen. Tar’s fully furnished backstory and the brilliance of Blanchett’s portrayal have inspired some to play with the possibility that the conductor could actually exist. A parody Twitter account has been born. Thanks to the nightmarish nature of her downfall, other obsessives have decided that some of these sequences are the fruit of her own febrile imagination, springing from her worst fears. Field doesn’t mind. He has benignly declared that no interpretation of the film is wrong, so the game will probably go on for some time.
One thing, however, is indisputable. The film is a genuine tragedy – a black comic tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless. When great artists betray their talent by treating it carelessly and abusing the power that comes with it, it’s always a tragedy.
Tar is in cinemas from January 26.
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