Just as well I saw this at the cinema – had I attempted to watch it at home, I might have abandoned it within the first few minutes, as it’s such a slow burner, at least to begin with, and it’s a while before anything substantial actually happens. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett)– who, it later transpires, is actually an American called Linda Tarr – has made her ‘name’ as the first female conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker: a schoolboy Google search reveals the pianist and composer Mary Wurm (1860-1938) was actually the first female conductor, in 1887, although Tár may wish to contend that she was a guest conductor, which isn’t the same as being principal conductor.
The powers invested in Tár were quite extensive, and she was very aware of what she was able to decide for herself. She had an almost dictatorial style of leadership, allergic to seeking out the opinions of others except when she was reasonably certain there would be little or no resistance to what she wanted. Not very many people are particularly likeable in this rather indulgent movie – perhaps only Petra (Mila Bogojevic), the daughter of Tár and her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), and a budding Russian cellist called Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer), lightened the mood. As for Goodnow, she’s in the orchestra – I don’t recall whether she was there already (that is, before Tár was appointed) or if she was appointed by Tár. Whatever: the salient point is she’s shagging the conductor, and everyone knows it.
Whether Blanchett actually plays the piano as someone of Tár’s calibre would reasonably be expected to do isn’t clear – the camera never lies, but then the camera could be positioned, as it is, at an angle that makes it difficult to determine what’s going on. The storyline, once it gets going, has something going for it: there are perspectives on power dynamics in the workplace, a somewhat morally dubious response to playground bullying, and an attack on cancel culture. The latter was fascinating to see in a modern movie: Tár does a masterclass at the Juilliard School, where a student, Max (Zethphan Smith-Geist) is deliberately unfamiliar with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, on the grounds that he was a straight white male. Tár tears him to shreds – music can be good, whoever it is composed by, and personal characteristics are neither here nor there when it comes to appreciating the value of a well-written composition.
After that, however, it all goes a bit weird. Tár becomes increasingly haunted by – well, something or other, but doesn’t talk about it with anyone else. It’s all inexplicable: in one scene, she hears a woman screaming outside but is unable to determine where on earth the sound is coming from, even though her investigations are somewhat rudimentary. There’s very little conducting to witness in a film about a conductor, and it presents a strong case as to why a woman should never be principal conductor of a symphony orchestra: the power will go to her head, and she’ll be an abuser, even to the point of assaulting someone in front of a paying audience. No wonder Marin Alsop, the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, was offended by the film.
Ultimately, she (Tár) gets away with all her wrongdoings – escaping first to her family home in America, where her brother Tony (Lee Sellars) quite rightly tears into her, as she’s become someone quite unrecognisable from the reasonable and civilised person she once was. She then buggers off to southeast Asia to conduct there, where she is treated with the utmost respect, though the film doesn’t dwell there long enough to inform the audience as to whether the abuses of the past are repeated in a different setting. The moral of the story seems to be that certain people who are rich and famous get away with being utter monsters because they have the funds to afford lawyers who can get them out of almost anything. But in the real world, even Donald Trump can be arrested and face criminal charges. So why not Lydia Tár?