If there were ever a shadow of a doubt as to the maestro’s magnificence of Cate Blanchett’s performance power, then a single moment captured in silhouette in Todd Field’s astounding film Tár should dispel such folly.
Playing fictional, fantastically gifted and more than a little ferocious classical music conductor and ‘U-Haul lesbian’ Lydia Tár, she’s a rare woman at the top of her game in a concert world depressingly dominated by men.
With an elusive EGOT to her name, she is in high demand the world over. But both an in-character interview with real-life New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik and a spirited defence of Mahler after a little on the nose run-in with a young student – who identifies as BIPOC and pan-gender and announces their distaste for the dead old white dude – establish that she does not fly the feminist flag. Indeed, she is part of the old guard.
Creative genius vs creative menace
The film, also written by Field, makes it increasingly clear that Lydia may well be a Weinstein-type: a predator who exacts sexual favours from the young women who seek to gain her professional graces and shut down the ambitions of those who fall short.
This implied menace leads us to the one perfect shot mentioned above, with Lydia shrouded in shadow in the liminal space of a doorway flooded with light from a window behind her. In the foreground sits promising young Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer), who Lydia has just elevated over the Berlin Philharmonic’s usual lead in that role.
Lydia is preparing her tea – a rare moment of service from a woman used to others following her precisely dictated orders. Olga perches at Lydia’s piano and begins to play the first fragmented notes of an elusive original composition that has been haunting the complicated conductor’s waking dreams. And there it is. Blanchett conveys this mercurial moment of recognition and the visceral thrill of desire, both for her own creative genius and for her new obsession, in an almost imperceptible yet unmissable physical shift in the way Lydia holds herself, simply a shadow, in the background of the shot.
Though Tár can appear, on the surface, a little too coolly austere in both its pacing and the greyish palette of Florian Hoffmeister’s clinical cinematography, it’s an intense slow burn set alight by Blanchett’s towering turn. This is Blanchett’s show, and surely the Oscar is hers to lose, but she’s also in great company.
Homeland actor Nina Hoss is similarly incredible as Lydia’s long-suffering wife, Sharon, who leads the orchestra and is the first violinist. The muddied line between the personal and professional is already soaked into the crisp white shirts that accompany Lydia’s stylishly tailored suits, you see?
Lydia’s connection to their adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) is the only time she truly lets her guard down and vulnerability in. But this genuine bond also leads to a startling moment when we witness Lydia confront Petra’s school bully with a chilling warning delivered with an assassin’s smile.
Also impeccable in a role that requires many worried glances is Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Noémie Merlant. As Lydia’s personal assistant Francessca, she harbours ambitions of rising up the orchestral ladder, if only she can push past the soul-worrying itch that is an inbox full of increasingly desperate, cruelly ignored emails from one of Lydia’s formerly favoured followers, Krista, fleetingly portrayed by model-turned-actor Sylvia Flote.
She’s a Rebecca-like ghost half-glimpsed on the edges of this emotionally haunted story that relishes holding us in the flickering half-light of scandalous whispers.
And while Lydia, at first, appears to stride into the oncoming storm, she, too, is increasingly haunted, plagued by midnight sounds she suspects emanate from the fridge, a horrific scream emanating from the woods on a daylight job, or a dark shape lurking in Olga’s basement
Those frustrated by films that clasp their cards chest-close may lose patience with Field’s cello-tight bowstring hold on Lydia – our only real way into this creeping #Metoo-inspired tale set to the stirring strings of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s majestic score. In delivering a smothering portrait of an artist that leaves you gasping for air, the director asks difficult questions about the balance of power, how we frame perfection at any price, and the perception of gender roles.
As an increasingly cacophonous chorus swells at the sign of a vaunted career unravelling slowly, at first, before careening headlong into the discordant, Blanchett is at all times in command even as her character loses her grip. Much like the mesmerising movements of Lydia’s thrusting-limbed orchestral direction, her performance is wondrous, and we are held rapt.
Tár is in Australian cinemas from 26 January