“Wait, so she’s fictional?” read the message. “Not a real person…”
Non-classically oriented people like my friend could easily be forgiven for mistaking Tár de Blanchett, an American conductor conducting an orchestra in Berlin, for the authentic article. Writer-director Todd Field’s capture of the classic world is so true to life, and Blanchett’s habitation so compelling, that the line between Tár’s world and our own seems as thin as a canvas of light.
On the surface, “Tár” could be a drama about cancel culture – suggesting that failures of moral purity are as inevitable as Beethoven’s next note. But, like a good symphony, over time the film reveals its deeper psychological and cultural concerns: the accommodations we make in the name of genius, the reliable abuse of power, the trusty excuse of art.
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Field took advice from conductor and author John Mauceri and worked extensively with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, and Blanchett had her own crash course with conductor Natalie Murray Beale. (She also had to pick up some German and relearn the piano.) Her performance suggests that she not only absorbed lessons about what happens on the catwalk, but also about the history that weighs every wave of the baguette.
But beyond this astonishing plausibility, “Tár” is above all a film for listeners.
Along with Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which provides the melting musical core of the film, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor (Op. 85) plays an important supporting role. Other contemporary and classic works accompany the film: Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices” makes an appearance, as does the Offertorio from Verdi’s “Requiem”, the overture to “Tannhäuser” by Wagner, and the prelude in C major and fugue from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Keyboard”. A sort of leitmotif for Lydia is provided by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s stunning ‘Ró’.
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An original score by Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadottir (whose name is dropped in the film) gives Lydia’s Berlin an unsettling mood. And the unclassical sounds find their way – little reminders of a world outside the concert hall and traces of humanity often left in the wake of the commandeering conductor. We hear Count Basie, Cole Porter, and a haunting thread from Lydia’s academic past in the form of an icaro from the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian rainforest, sung by shaman Elisa Vargas Fernandez.
“Tár” is Field’s first film in 16 years (following 2001’s “In the Bedroom” and 2006’s “Little Children”), and he wrote the role specifically for Blanchett. “In every possible way,” he says in a director’s statement, “this is Cate’s movie.”
I caught up with Blanchett and Field by Zoom last week to talk about “Tár,” the music, and the dangers that come with every creative peak.
Q: The classic movie world could have been entirely fictionalized, but it was full of names and situations that we recognize. What was important about keeping the real world so close to the film world?
Cate Blanchett: Personally, I think to jump into the movie’s more metaphysical and existential ending, you need to have it rooted in a very possible today. I felt it from the script.
Todd Field: This character talks about Nathalie Stutzmann, she talks about Marin Alsop, she talks about MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] and Bernstein and all the usual suspects. It’s important in that if it was a baseball movie, you’d be talking about Hank Aaron, Whitey Ford, and Roger Maris. This is the world she comes from. It’s not like there’s going to be a test for anyone outside of that medium. It’s more important that you understand that it’s in there, that it’s real and immediate and that there’s some kind of real fundamental grounding.
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Q: Cate, I was curious about your relationship with classical music before this movie and how you prepared for it.
White: As a child, I was taken to concerts and learned the piano as a child, but I kind of gave it up. I was much more kinesthetic, much more dancing. But I guess dance, like music, needs no language, and I’m always very grateful in a movie when you don’t have to talk, which of course wasn’t the case with this script.
But music is often for me the starting point to unlock the atmosphere in which a character lives, or the spirit of a character. So when you look at the structure of Mahler’s Fifth, there seemed to be Lydia Tár’s arc contained within – all these unspoken enigmas about love and the life she was living and fighting against. So it was obviously extremely important in this case and an incredible privilege to work alongside musicians and to stand in front of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m always happy when I can find the beat or the song that speaks to the soul of the character.
Q: Todd, Cate mentioned the structure of [Mahler’s 5th] be present in Lydia’s arc. Did this symphony influence the way you composed the story? I felt like it progressed in a series of movements.
Field: Without getting too equational about it, the Five certainly informs him. During my first interviews with John Mauceri, he immediately asked me: “What is your favorite piece of classical music? And, as an apologist, I said: “The Five”. And I felt that because it’s a lot of people’s favorite music. And he said, ‘No, you shouldn’t be afraid of that. It is an essential pivot in concert music. You should kiss her.
There’s so much going on around this piece of music, as Lydia unpacks it at the start, having to do with when [Mahler] wrote it, who he wrote it for, how it has changed over the years. Mahler was an obsessive revisionist. So much so that there are still discussions about the definitive interpretation of the Mahler Five. Of course, it depends on your point of view. Lydia’s point of view would be the start. From another academic point of view, it could be the end or the middle. It’s a piece of music that’s still going on, so it’s kind of fitting for this movie.
Q: I found myself, especially through the first act, excusing all sorts of little lies and manipulations and kind of reducing their impact as the cost of genius. Now, if I watch this movie again, it will feel like an indictment of my attention, because of how much detail I’ve overlooked, all so I can help maintain the Lydia mythology. What was your perception of the mythology surrounding the role of the conductor before working on this film? Has this changed?
White: I think at the Greek level, she is the architect of her own downfall. We see [Lydia] at a time when she is nearing the end of a creative movement in her life – hence, her focus is on legacy. And I think as an artist, when you start thinking about legacy, that’s where your demise lies. But, along with that, I think part of a conductor’s power, and his authority to dominate the enormous human instrument that is an orchestra, is his personality. So you have to balance that.
What I’ve really found fascinating — and I still live with what that means to me personally — is that when you overcome what is considered the pinnacle of your career, you know you’re at the pinnacle and the only way to continue is to run downhill. When you get to that peak, you want to hold onto it so tightly, and that’s incredibly human. If you look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, you think she paints mountains and in fact she only paints anthills. So he doesn’t necessarily have to lead the biggest orchestra in the world. What I find truly noble [Lydia] it’s that she knows she has to burn, and it’s going to be brutal and embarrassing and have huge repercussions.
Q: There’s a wonderful presence of time as a kind of medium in the film – a kind of legato smoothness in the long takes, and then things shift to that more staccato third act. How did you want time and tempo to factor into the story telling?
Field: It is calibrated in a specific way, similar to having tempo changes in a piece of music. Even until last summer, when [composer] Hildur Gudnadottir and I sat down and started working on it…we talked about character tempos. So, for example, Cate was always walking at 120 beats per minute – so during production she had something in her ear and she was always walking at 120 beats per minute. While, say, Olga, the young cellist [played by cellist Sophie Kauer], would run at 60 beats per minute. That very much determined how we treated Tár, because except for two angles, she is in every frame. When it moves, we move. We never leave her, so she really sets the pace. Propulsion and engine are determined strictly by Cate.
Q: It was wonderful to see musicians [such as Kauer] move on to acting. How has being exposed to so much music up close influenced your process?
White: In fact, I started the process of directing by watching [the late Soviet conductor] Ilya Musin’s master classes online. … My friend [conductor] Natalie Murray Beale, who was helping me prepare, said, “You won’t really understand the music or the experience until you stand on the podium and hear the sound coming back to you and through. you.
There was a conversation that Todd and I had early on when Todd thought he should cast an actor who would have access to the cello? Or a cellist who can who can play? And in the end, the decision was made to opt for a cellist. Sophie introduced herself and I was amazed by her facilities. For her, who is still studying in Denmark, performing with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra was nerve-wracking at best. She had a life imitating art, where she was the chosen one and she was a student, which is kind of what happens to [the character] Olga. There were so many parallels. Watching her confidence grow was such a privilege, but then watching her as an actress!
Field: She had the rhythm and the ear.
White: Rhythm and the ear, bypassing psychology. As an actor, there are so many ways to get into a role, and it doesn’t always have to be an intellectual connection. It’s something else, something mysterious. And she totally had it. I was in awe of what she was doing.
“Tár” opens in select theaters October 14 and nationwide October 28.