Cate Blanchett’s final performance as an overbearing conductor in the film Tar received a six-minute standing ovation and rave reviews after its premiere last week at the Venice Film Festival. Directed by Todd Field, the film centers on the fictional life of Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, a giant of the musical world, who sits on the brink of crisis as the skeletons of her past come back to haunt her. Impassioned cries of “bravo” rang out from the Sala Grande Theater audience as the film ended, with initial reviews praising the performance as the greatest of Blanchett’s career to date, generating strong anticipation for an upcoming Oscar nomination. .
The film is a passionate and deeply human portrait of Lydia Tár, one of the world’s greatest composers and conductors. She’s an EGOT winner, mentor at Juilliard, and holds the most prestigious orchestral position in the world as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (an institution that, in reality, has never named female head chef). Her partner is the principal violinist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, played by the famous German actress Nina Hoss, with whom she lives in a luxurious Berlin apartment, with their young child. As the film begins, Lydia is at the top of her game, preparing for a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, but remnants of what appears to be a sordid past begin to emerge; an obsessed former mentee, exchanging suggestive glances with the orchestra’s new cellist, a less than professional relationship with her devoted assistant. The image of a manipulative and terrifying woman begins to form as Tár falls dramatically out of favor in psycho-thriller form.
“Lydia is definitely haunted by something, by the past, by herself, by her experience,” Blanchett said at the Venice Film Festival press conference. “He’s someone who definitely put his past in a box and through his greatest talent tried to reinvent himself and be saved and changed by music. So I think you feel the fear and I think that’s when you reach the top, as we see Lydia do, not just as an artist but as a human being, the only way for her from then on is down and that takes a tremendous amount of courage and it is perhaps a horror film in itself.
The film is Field’s first in 16 years since his last work Small children, another psychological drama that propelled Kate Winslet to a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Casting Blanchett in this specific role was the plan all along, as Field said during the Venice Film Festival press conference. Blanchett’s performance sparked widespread speculation of a fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination, with comparisons drawn to her role as a gay woman in the 2016 film Carolfor which she received her last Oscar nomination.
Critics have noted the film’s veracity to the technical aspects of orchestral classical music, even straying at times to inaccessibility for those less familiar with the jargon, but this attention to authenticity only seems to strengthen the film.
“The film is breathtaking – in its drama, its high-level innovation, its vision,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in his rave review for Variety. “It’s a ruthless yet intimate story about art, lust, obsession and power. It’s set in the world of contemporary classical music, and while that sounds a bit colorful (it is, in a good way), the film takes us through that world in such rigorously precise, authentic and detailed that it generates the immersion of a thriller. The characters in Tar feel as real as life. You believe, at every moment, in the reality that you see, and it’s extraordinary how that raises the stakes.
The notion of the fearsome and tyrannical conductor is one that endures in the mythology surrounding classical music and seems to have been the perfect vehicle for a searing exploration of power, control and coercion. In preparation for the role, Blanchett studied the mannerisms of legendary American conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom Lydia Tár is said to have learned from in the film, and who was known for his particularly physical and demonstrative style. Her need for control, while achieving masterful results on stage, ultimately leads to her demise as she uses coercive tactics to manipulate those around her. In her performance, Blanchett weaves together the facets of Tár’s personality to create a complex and compelling character.
The Guardian said Blanchett gives “a colossal performance”, describing her as “utterly magnetic as an imperious maestro in this ultra-elegant drama with a shocking climax”.
“She takes what she wants from people and leaves scorched earth behind,” Stephanie Zacharek said in a review for TIME magazine. “She’s awesome and awful in equal measure, so compelling you can’t turn away from her, but also touching in a way that never courts our pity. She’s unlike anyone we’ve ever seen on screen.
Tar will be released in Australia on January 20, 2023.