Tuesday, November 1, 2022

A Dark and Sticky Tár

Why is Todd Field’s new movie called Tár? The obvious answer is that it dervies from the last name of its leading character, a renowned symphonic conductor who’s American, though apparently of Eastern European descent. But I suspect that in the back of Field’s mind he had a more homely meaning of the word “tar.” What is tar (without the accent) but a useful yet annoying substance, one that sticks to everything, and you can’t be rid of it? Maybe I’m overreaching, but this seems to describe Lydia Tár's life. Despite the fact that the music world regards her with awe, she’s dealing with memories she can’t forget, worries she can’t sidestep, and longings that get her into serious trouble.

 We first meet Lydia Tár at the height of her glory. Though she has a major conducting post as the head of the Berlin Philharmonic, she’s in New York City taking care of business. When she’s interviewed onstage by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik about her life as a conductor, a well-dressed crowd hangs onto her every word. (Field’s screenplay works hard to seem both current and au courant. Lydia was apparently a protegee of the late “Lenny” Bernstein;when she discusses with Gopnik the careers of other female conductors, she casually references Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta.) 

 Back in Berlin, fulfilling a Deutsche Grammophon contract to complete her orchestra’s  cycle of Mahler symphonies with the majestic #5, she suddenly seems not quite so sure of herself. Some of the things she’s facing are probably familiar to every conductor who leads a major orchestra: she wants to rid herself of an assistant conductor who’s past his prime; she’s not sure that a new young cellist from Russia will fit in with her potential colleagues in the string section. But there are personal matters as well. Lydia’s romantic liaison with the top violinist who’s also the mother of their child is growing increasingly shaky. And though she’s attracted the world’s admiration for encouraging promising young female conductors via a fellowship program, one candidate has not come to a good end—and Lydia may be to blame.

 As the stresses and strains pile up, Lydia becomes hyperaware of her surroundings, to the point where she’ll spring forth from sleep and obsess over sounds that should not be part of her after-hours life. A metronome, for instance, is suddenly ticking off time in the middle of the night.

 It’s at that point that a matter-of-fact realistic story suddenly transforms into a kind of  horror film. Lydia experiences things that probably didn’t happen, and finds herself in places that don’t make any rational sense. Which leads, at long last, to an evolution in Lydia’s career that she surely wouldn’t have chosen, but one that she approaches with her usual professionalism and with her dignity (at least mostly) intact.

 Cate Blanchett serves as a producer as well as star of this film, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go on this journey without her. Through her multilayered performance we see Lydia Tár’s ambition, her passion for music, her fierce determination to go after what she believes in, her vulnerability to lust, and her lingering sense of shame. We see her being both tender and terrifying, sometimes moving with lightning speed from one state of being to the other. Does she deserve what happens to her? Probably so. Would it work out differently if she were male? Again, probably so. In any case, it’s thrilling to see one of our finest actors take on a role that’s worthy of her talent.



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