As many a printed tote bag reminds us, well-behaved women rarely make history. But what does that mean, exactly? There’s a tendency to romanticize the idea of the complicated woman, as if that adjective were an automatic badge of honor. Does it mean a woman is intelligent, independent or brave? Or is she merely unbearable? And what man ever gets praised for being “complicated”?
In writer-director Todd Field’s dazzling, uncompromising high-wire act Tár—playing at the 79 Venice Film Festival—Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a conductor at the top of her game, and of her world. We don’t see her struggling to be the best, or complaining about how hard it is to be recognized in a field dominated by men. In fact, she believes women conductors have no reason to complain about disadvantage or discrimination. While men often use money and power to fuel their sense of entitlement, Lydia stakes her claim on her own intelligence. She takes what she wants from people and leaves scorched earth behind. She’s great 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 onscreen, which may help explain why this is only Field’s third movie as a director, even though he has worked steadily through the years as an actor: he’s obviously a guy who waits for the right one to come along.
Tár, Field’s first film in 16 years, is extraordinary. It’s also, in places, disconcertingly chilly and remote, possibly the kind of movie that’s easier to love than it is to like. But people will surely be talking about it, and about Blanchett’s performance specifically. Blanchett, though extremely gifted, can be excessively mannered. (Her 2014 Oscar-winning role in Blue Jasmine is Exhibit A; she hits each Blanche du Bois-inflected note with tuning-fork precision.) But she can also be a performer of great, near-alien strangeness and beauty, and that’s the subterranean current she’s tapping as Lydia Tár. This is a willful, charismatic performance, stubborn and elegant as a vine.
When it comes to telling us who Lydia is and what she’s about, Field and Blanchett throw us into the deep end without even asking if we can swim. As the movie begins, we see Lydia prepping for an onstage discussion in New York. She’s turned out in supple, androgynous custom-made goods that seem to float on her body; she busies herself with breathing exercises as she waits in the wings. She’s all about preparation, which is a kind of control; with a sturdy diaphragm, you can conquer the world.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself, introduces her to the audience by reciting a seemingly endless list of her accomplishments: She’s the first woman to have been appointed principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. She’s nearly as well respected a composer as she is a conductor. And her soon-to-be-published memoir has the kind of look-at-me title Norman Mailer would have envied: Tár on Tár. Lydia deflects Gopnik’s fawning praise with withering modesty, and as the predictable Q&A-type questions start piling up, her answers race ahead, moving on multiple planes like dueling Double Dutch jump ropes, parabolas wriggling over and under one another like unmappable brain waves. She speaks of her idols, Bernstein and Mahler—she’s preparing a performance of the latter’s Symphony No. 5 in Berlin. She scoffs at the idea that women conductors need to be referred to by the special, feminized form maestra.(“They don’t call astronauts astronettes,” she says with a wan smile.) She rails against the perception of a conductor as a human metronome, but then doubles back to embrace it: “Time’s the thing,” she says, the essential component of interpretation. This is Blanchett performing as a performer, being excessive on purpose, swaggering in her own house of mirrors.
In addition to a great, prestigious job, Lydia has what would seem to be an exquisitely curated home life. She lives in Berlin with her partner, Sharon (played by the great German actor Nina Hoss, whose name, if there were justice in the world, would be as big as Blanchett’s), and their grade-school-age daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who’s not as well-adjusted as she might be. The suggestion—and the reality—is that Lydia is so busy being Lydia Tár that she’s dropping the ball at home. But out in the world, she’s greatly in demand as an inspirational figure, and she lets no one off the hook. We see her giving a master class at Juilliard, and she thinks nothing of setting one kid straight when they explain that, “as a BIPOC, pan-gender person,” they fail to find much to respond to in a dead cis white male like Bach. Lydia is exasperated by that response, and says as much, in a highly undiplomatic way—but she also sits at the piano, with the student at her side, and eagerly runs through a few brief passages, as if to cut a path through the students’ collective dismissiveness. Bach, she explains as she spins out a phrase with a question mark built right in, “is never certain of anything.” She strives to counteract the reductive thinking that’s been programmed into these young people: “Don’t be so eager to be offended.”
But being on top of the world comes with its temptations, and it soon becomes clear that Lydia’s sexual indiscretions may not be the forgivable kind: she has used her influence not only to seduce others, but to hurt them. Lydia is gay—she describes herself cavalierly as a “U-Haul lesbian,” whatever that might mean—though it’s hard to conceive of her as a sexual being: she’s so brainy, so exacting, so in love with the notion of drawing magic out of thin air in the form of music, that there doesn’t seem to be room for a libido. But those who are close to her—like her ambitious assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who aspires to be a conductor herself, and her partner Sharon, who is also first violinist in her orchestra, and the first to notice when Lydia’s eye starts roving—have seen how successful a manipulator she is. The movie makes no excuses for Lydia’s behavior, and Blanchett’s performance faces it squarely. Lydia is a woman who believes she can control everything around her, as if her ability to wrangle notes as they float through the air has turned her into a god, a being of great power and vengefulness.
Field’s previous two films were adapted from previously existing sources: In the Bedroom, from 2001, was drawn from an Andre Dubus short story, and Little Children, from 2006, was based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name. But Tár, he has said, was written specifically for Blanchett, and his surefooted direction makes the most of her every line and gesture. When Blanchett as Lydia stands before her musicians, she’s so open she may as well be listening through every pore. In her kingdom of woodwinds and strings, she can hear things we can’t, like the rush of wind beneath a bird’s wing—she knows intuitively whether that whoosh is too loud or too soft, and she can shift it accordingly. Blanchett learned to speak German, play piano and conduct an orchestra for the role, though what she does goes beyond mere research and memorization. Her movements are precise, definitive, balletic: Blanchett plays a woman who knows what she was born to do, and the thrill of it sets her eyes ablaze. Tár doesn’t offer anything as comfortable as redemption, and it asks us to fall in love, at least a little, with a tyrant. But how often do we see women portrayed this way, as magnificent rather than admirable? Lydia Tár is the antithesis of tote-bag feminism, not least because she knows that the power of a question is greater than that of a slogan.