It’s about time. For conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), time is her job. Her right hand “starts the clock,” while her left shapes the music and guides the orchestra. She can also stop time, slow it down, speed it up, play with it — there’s a lot she can do from her place on the podium. Some might call it direction and interpretation. For others, manipulation is a better word.
Written, produced and directed by Todd Field (Little Children), Tár is a masterpiece, full stop. The film is set in the tony world of classical music, but its insights feel applicable anywhere. This is particularly true in the details Field buries in each scene: bits of tossed-off dialogue reflecting on the larger narrative. When discussing a piece of music with an admirer, Tár points out that the 11 pistol shots, a prime number, “signifies victim and victimizer.” In another, Tár, transported via boat in Southeast Asia, expresses an interest in going for a swim. The guide tells her no, crocodiles are in the water, brought in for a Marlon Brando movie. “That was a long time ago,” Tár says. “They survived,” the guide replies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; we should talk story. Tár follows its titular character as she prepares to record Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. Once she does, it will complete her Mahler cycle, a culmination of a long and storied career laid out by Field in the movie’s first few minutes through an onstage New Yorker talk with Adam Gopnick recounting Tár’s many achievements. Pay attention to these accolades; they belie a magnificently diverse and varied career with interest well beyond the canon. Also, take note of the music that opens the film — Field is constantly subverting your assumptions.
Back to Mahler: The choice of the five is neither arbitrary, narratively speaking, nor is it boring. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is an invigorating piece that allows Tár a chance to indulge her academic side. Tár’s mentor was Leonard Bernstein — Lenny, as she calls him — and much of what Tár has to say about music, about its ability to reach inside you and pull something out, is reminiscent of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. That’s the VHS Tár reaches for when she needs a pick-me-up.
As she watches the tape, a tear rolls down her cheek. Why? Because the weight of her choices has caught up with her? Because she remembers what it was like to be a little girl and fall under music’s spell? Because there is nothing quite as moving as a musical piece well performed? Can it be all three? Plurality might be cinema’s greatest asset.
I could go on, but the pleasures of Tár lie in not knowing what comes next. We should talk again in a few weeks after you’ve had a chance to see the movie, because I imagine you’ll have some thoughts. About Blanchett’s performance, about what Tár heard in the woods, about the presence that haunts Tár’s dreams, and about that Julliard master class with Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) — I suspect a lot of people will want to talk about that one.
ON SCREEN: Tár opens in wide release on Oct. 20.