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Cate Blanchett stars a manipulative classical conductor: NPR


Cate Blanchett plays world-famous bandleader in film Tar.

Courtesy of Focus Features


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Courtesy of Focus Features

Cate Blanchett stars a manipulative classical conductor: NPR

Cate Blanchett plays world-famous bandleader in film Tar.

Courtesy of Focus Features

At this point, we don’t need reminders of what a great actor Cate Blanchett is, but we do have one in her new movie, Tar. To play the fictional role of Lydia Tár, world-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Blanchett learned to conduct music, play the piano and speak German – not all at once, thankfully. although I’m sure she could if asked to. then. Many films about artists – even actual artists – struggle to convince you of their characters’ accomplishments. But Blanchett immediately makes you believe in Lydia’s genius, even before we’ve seen her take over.

The film begins in Manhattan, with Lydia in a long onstage conversation with the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. This scene and others are a delight for lovers of classical music: we discover all the orchestras conducted by Lydia, the music she composed, the films she composed, the books she wrote and the many awards she has won. We also learn about his dedication to great composers like Mahler and great conductors like Leonard Bernstein, as well as his thoughts on how conductors shape and manipulate the flow of time.

Writer-director Todd Field himself has a masterful understanding of time. Tar is over 2.5 hours long, but I found it fascinating – not just as a character study, but as a perfectly compelling portrayal of the insular, competitive world where Lydia rules. Although her work often took her to New York – she taught at Juilliard – she moved to Berlin with her partner Sharon, an accomplished violinist played by the superb German actress Nina Hoss. They have a young daughter, although Lydia is too busy with work to spend much time with her family.

Lydia is not only a conductor on the podium; she treats everyone in her life as if they were a member of her own personal orchestra, to be manipulated at will. That goes for the wealthy investor — a terribly fat Mark Strong — who funds a conducting scholarship, as well as his hardworking assistant, Francesca, who aspires to be a conductor herself.. Francesca, played in a cunning trick by Noémie Merlant, also keeps less savory secrets from her boss, some of which concern the many attractive young musicians Lydia has taken under her wing. Which does Tar a cold study in the abuse of power, set in a classical music industry that has seen some of its biggest stars face accusations of sexual misconduct.

Lydia may be the rare woman – and the rare lesbian – to achieve worldwide fame in a male-dominated profession, but she also imposes a certain status quo. She dismisses the idea that gender barriers have always held her back. And there’s an extraordinary opening scene at Juilliard, where Lydia argues with a young student of color who looks down on Bach, Beethoven and other white male composers. Lydia rejects his total rejection of the Western canon and insists that identity politics should have no place in the evaluation of art. You may or may not agree with her, but it’s hard not to admire the intellectual brilliance with which she attacks her student’s argument – while playing the opening prelude to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Keyboard.” on the piano, to start.

It’s been 16 long years since Field has made a movie, and for at least part of that time he’s clearly pondered some of the most debated social issues of the day. But Tar is too subtly thought out and complex to be reduced to mere talking points, and Blanchett’s performance also resists easy categorization. With her mixture of charisma, ferocity and sometimes tenderness, she shows us both Lydia Tár the magnificent artist and Lydia Tár the monstrous human being – and keeps us from separating the two.

Lydia is due for an award, and she gets it. Or is she? Lots of people I’ve talked to Tar were baffled by the ending, even those who love the movie as much as I do. I won’t reveal that ending, except to say that it filled me with a new wave of admiration – for Lydia, an accomplished artist even at her lowest, and for the brilliantly thought-provoking film that brought her to life.

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