January 2023


A Symphony Like the World


Miles David Moore


Gustav Mahler famously said, "A symphony must be like the world.  It must contain everything."  Tar, Todd Field's new movie, is about a conductor who is a noted Mahler specialist, but whose solipsistic view of the world leads to her downfall.

Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a maestra nonpareil.  A protegee of Leonard Bernstein, Tar has led all the major American orchestras and now has captured the ultimate prize in the career of any conductor, the Berlin Philharmonic.  A composer of distinction and an EGOT, she is preparing to publish her memoirs, Tar on Tar, and at the film's opening discusses her life and work before an enraptured audience at the New Yorker Festival.  Interviewed by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself), Tar is authoritative and avuncular.  She generously mentions her fellow women conductors (Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, etc.); tells an anecdote about the musician she identifies as the first true conductor, Jean-Baptiste Lully; and discusses her plan to record a live performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, the cornerstone of her Mahler recording project.  (The anecdote about Lully may be considered a metaphor for Tar's own fate.)

Tar is revered, but she is not liked.  During her interview with Gopnik, we see Smartphone screens fill up with snarky texts about her.  Shortly thereafter, we see her lunching, in a restaurant as glacially elegant as
she is, with Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), a fellow conductor and administrator of the foundation Tar established to advance the careers of women conductors.  Beneath the surface friendliness, Kaplan is clearly jealous of Tar, and she barely bothers to conceal her condescension.  She doubles down on that condescension, while teaching a master class at Juilliard, toward a "BIPOC pangender" student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who objects to the music of the paternalistic Johann Sebastian Bach.

Tar deals similarly with Francesca (Noemie Merlant), her much-put-upon assistant; Sebastian (Allan Corduner), assistant conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic, whom she decides to put out to pasture; and even her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who also is concertmaster at the Philharmonic. The only people exempt from her disdain are Andris (Julian Glover), retired conductor of the Philharmonic and one of Tar's mentors, and her adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic).  But even motherhood for Tar is sullied by her need to command.  When Petra complains of being bullied at
school, Tar bullies the bully, a frail-looking blonde girl, in one of the most alarming scenes in a film replete with alarming scenes.

Tar is accustomed to being empress of all she surveys.  Yet there are signs that her control is starting to unravel.  For one thing, she is hounded by noise.  Running in the Tiergarten one morning, she hears a woman's repeated screams.  She tries to investigate but finds nothing.  Another time, she is wakened by an insistent noise that turns out to be a metronome inexplicably ticking in one of her cabinets. 


Then there are the problems her behavior is creating in her personal life.  Her favoritism toward Olga (Sophie Kauer), a new cellist at the Philharmonic, is causing dissent among the players, especially when she passes over more senior cellists to choose Olga to perform the Elgar Cello Concerto.  And there is the continuing trouble with Krista Taylor, a young conductor and Tar's former lover.  When Krista sends Tar a copy of Vita Sackville-West's Challenge, a seminal lesbian novel, Tar tears it apart and stuffs it down an airplane waste bin.  She directs Francesca to delete all emails from Krista, but she herself has been writing emails about Krista.  More than anything else, this leads to her eventual disgrace, and to a moment that can best be described as Will Smith on steroids.

Tar is a rich and immersive experience, so much so that it's difficult to do justice to it in a normal review.  Field's screenplay reveals the minutiae of the upper echelon of classical music—a world familiar to at least some readers of Scene4-- in a way I don't recall seeing before.  Field presents it as an insular, hierarchical world, and Tar stands astride it like a colossus—until she doesn't.  Tar has been described as a meditation on identity politics and cancel culture, on one side, and as a denunciation of sexism in the arts, on the other.  Both elements are certainly present, but Tar is far too complex to be reduced to those elements.  For me, first and foremost, Tar is a portrait of what the French call a monstre sacre.  There have been countless examples in the history of the arts, many of them in classical music.  Their arrogant and manipulative behavior, at least before the advent of IT, Twitter and 24-hour news cycles, was seldom called to account.  You could say it was Tar's misfortune to live in this era, except that she would never have risen to such lofty heights in previous ones.  Her rise and fall are both products of her time.

In any case, Field never tells us what to think of Tar or her circumstances; he merely presents.  He was particularly astute to cast Blanchett, who has long been acknowledged as one of the world's greatest screen actors and who bounds to the top of that list in Tar.  Blanchett plays the role of Tar the way Martha Argerich plays the Rachmaninov Third: all out, with assured virtuosity and meticulous detail to nuance and dynamics. 


Blanchett's performance here reminds me of two others.  The first is Daniel Day-Lewis' as oilman Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, and the second is Blanchett's own as Jasmine Francis in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.  Like Plainview, Tar is larger than life, intimidating, not to be gainsaid in anything; like Jasmine, she is obsessive, laser-focused on what she wants.  But Tar is not as fortunate as Plainview; unlike him, she cannot make an island of herself, and thus is finally accountable.  She also is more complicated than Jasmine, whose desires begin and end with shopping sprees at Bloomingdale's and Bergdorf Goodman.  Tar's desires, indeed her entire life, begin and end with the greatest music ever written and her drive to achieve complete communion with it.  The expression on Tar's face at the end of a rehearsal of the Mahler Fifth tells us everything.  It is this passion to serve the music as best she can that gives us some sympathy for her.  At least she is not totally a compendium of appetites.  But the narrowness of her vision, which embraces art to the exclusion of humanity, is her fatal flaw.

Field gives the film a coda set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country where Tar's crisis managers send her in an attempt to rehabilitate her reputation.  I will not describe what happens, but the coda suggests that Tar's future will be a parody of her past.  Whether she deserves this is up to the individual viewer, but the final scene ranks with those of All About Eve and The Favourite as an ironic commentary on the emptiness of human ambition. Lydia Tar has become the emblem of all those who live in an unreal world.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Miles David Moore
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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