“Wait, so she’s fictional?” read the message. “Not a real person … ”
Non-classically oriented folks such as my friend could be easily forgiven for taking Blanchett’s Tár, an American conductor leading an orchestra in Berlin, for the genuine article. Writer-director Todd Field’s capture of the classical world is so true to life, and Blanchett’s inhabitation of it so convincing, that the border between Tár’s world and ours feels as thin as a scrim of light.
On the surface, “Tár” could be a drama about cancel culture — suggesting that the failures of moral purity are as inevitable as Beethoven’s next note. But, like a good symphony, over time the film reveals its deeper psychological and cultural concerns: the accommodations we make in the name of genius, the reliable abuse of power, the trusty excuse of art.
Field took pointers from conductor and author John Mauceri and worked extensively with the Dresden Philharmonic, and Blanchett had her own crash courses with conductor Natalie Murray Beale. (She also had to pick up some German and relearn piano.) Her performance suggests she not only absorbed lessons about what takes place at the podium, but also the history that weights each wave of the baton.
But beyond this astonishing verisimilitude, “Tár” is, above all, a movie for listeners.
Along with Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which provides the movie’s molten musical core, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (Op. 85) plays an important supporting role. Other contemporary and classical works are threaded through the film: Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” makes an appearance, as does the Offertorio of Verdi’s “Requiem,” the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” and the C major prelude and fugue of Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.” A leitmotif of sorts for Lydia is supplied by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s heart-stopping “Ró.”
An original score by Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadottir (who gets name-dropped in the film) supplies Lydia’s Berlin with an unsettling weather. And nonclassical sounds find their way in — little reminders of a world outside the concert hall and traces of the humanity often left behind in the commandeering conductor’s wake. We hear Count Basie, Cole Porter and a haunting thread from Lydia’s academic past in the form of an icaro from the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian rainforest, sung by Shaman Elisa Vargas Fernandez.
“Tár” is Field’s first film in 16 years (after 2001′s “In the Bedroom” and 2006′s “Little Children”), and he wrote the part specifically for Blanchett. “In every possible way,” he says in a director’s statement, “this is Cate’s film.”
I caught up with Blanchett and Field by Zoom last week to talk “Tár,” music and the perils that attend every creative peak.
Q: The classical world in the film could have been wholly fictionalized, but it was full of names and situations we recognize. What was important about keeping the real world in such proximity to the world of the film?
Cate Blanchett: Personally, I think in order to jump off into the more metaphysical, existential end of the movie, you have to have it rooted in a very possible today. I felt that from the script.
Todd Field: This character is talking about Nathalie Stutzmann, she’s talking about Marin Alsop, she’s talking about MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] and Bernstein and all the usual suspects. It’s important in so much as if this were a baseball movie you’d be talking about Hank Aaron and Whitey Ford and Roger Maris. That’s the world that she comes from. It’s not like there’s going to be a test for anybody that’s outside of this milieu. It’s more important that you understand that she’s in it, and that it’s real and immediate and there are some kind of true foundational underpinnings.
Q: Cate, I was curious about your relationship to classical music before this film and how you prepared.
Blanchett: I was taken as a child to concerts, and I learned the piano as a girl, but I sort of gave it away. I was much more kinesthetic, much more into dance. But I guess dance, like music, dispenses with language, and I’m always so grateful in a film when you don’t have to talk, which of course wasn’t the case with this script.
But music is often the starting point for me in unlocking the atmosphere in which a character lives, or the spirit of a character. So when you look at the structure of Mahler’s Fifth, there seemed contained within it Lydia Tár’s arc — all of these unspoken conundrums about love and life that she was experiencing and battling against. So it was obviously hugely important in this instance and an incredible privilege to work alongside musicians and stand up in front of the Dresden Philharmonic. I’m always happy when I can find the beat or the song that speaks to the soul of the character.
Q: Todd, Cate mentioned the structure of [Mahler’s 5th] being present in Lydia’s arc. Did that symphony influence how you composed the story? It did feel like it progressed in a series of movements.
Field: Without getting too equational about it, the Five certainly informs it. In my initial talks with John Mauceri, he asked me straight up: ‘What’s your favorite piece of classical music?’ And, as an apologist, I said, ‘The Five.’ And I felt that way because it’s a lot of people’s favorite music. And he said, ‘No, you shouldn’t be afraid about that. It’s an essential pivot in terms of concert music. You should embrace it.’
There’s so much around that piece of music, as Lydia unpacks at the beginning, having to do with when [Mahler] wrote it, who he wrote it for, how it changed over the years. Mahler was an obsessive revisionist. So much so that there are still arguments about what is the definitive interpretation of the Mahler Five. Of course, it depends on your point of view. Lydia’s point of view would be the beginning. Another academic’s point of view, it could be the end or the middle. It’s a piece of music that’s still in process, so it’s sort of apt for this film.
Q: I found myself, especially through the first act, excusing all sorts of small lies and manipulations and kind of reducing their impact as the cost of genius. Now, if I re-watch this movie, it’s going to feel like an indictment of my attention, because of the sheer amount of details I ignored, all so I could help uphold Lydia’s mythology. What was your sense of the mythology surrounding the role of the conductor before you worked on this film? Did it change?
Blanchett: I think on a Greek level, she’s the architect of her own downfall. We see [Lydia] at a time when she’s coming to the end of a creative movement of her life — therefore, she’s focusing on legacy. And I think as an artist, when you start thinking about legacy, therein lies your demise. But, in parallel to that, I think part of a conductor’s power, and their authority to hold sway over the enormous human instrument that is an orchestra, is their personality. So you have to balance that.
What I really found fascinating — and I’m still kind of living with what it means for me personally — is that when you surmount what is seen as a pinnacle in one’s career, you know you’re at the top and the only way to continue is to run downhill. When you get to that pinnacle, you want to hold on so tightly to it, and that is incredibly human. If you look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, you think she’s painting mountains and in fact she’s only painting anthills. So it doesn’t have to necessarily be running the world’s greatest orchestra. What I find really noble about [Lydia] is that she knows she has to combust, and that it’s going to be brutal and embarrassing and have huge repercussions.
Q: There’s a wonderful presence of time as a kind of medium in the film — a sort of a legato smoothness to the long takes, and then things move into this more staccato third act. How did you want time and tempo to factor into the telling of the story?
Field: It is calibrated in a specific way, in the same way as if you had tempo changes within a piece of music. Even so far as last summer, when [composer] Hildur Gudnadottir and I sat down and started working on it … we talked about the tempo of the characters. So, for instance, Cate would always walk at 120 beats per minute — so during production, she had something in her ear, and she’s always walking 120 beats per minute. Whereas, say, Olga, the young cellist [played by cellist Sophie Kauer], would walk at 60 beats per minute. That determined a lot in terms of how we dealt with Tár, because with the exception of two angles, she’s in every frame. When she moves, we move. We never leave her, so she’s really driving the tempo. The propulsion and the engine is determined strictly by Cate.
Q: It was wonderful to see musicians [such as Kauer] cross over into acting. How did being exposed so closely to that much music inform your process?
Blanchett: I actually started the conducting process looking at [the late Soviet conductor] Ilya Musin’s master classes online. … My friend [conductor] Natalie Murray Beale, who was helping me prepare, said, ‘You won’t really fully understand the music or the experience until you stand on the podium and hear the sound come back at you and through you.’
There was a conversation Todd and I had very early on when Todd was thinking should he cast an actor who has access to the cello? Or a cellist who can who can possibly act? And in the end, the decision was made to go for a cellist. Sophie showed up, and I was just amazed at her facility. For her, who is still studying in Denmark, to play with the Dresden Philharmonic was nerve-racking at best. She had life imitating art, where she was the chosen one and she was a student, which is kind of what happens to [the character] Olga. There were so many parallels. Watching her confidence grow was such a privilege — but then watching her as an actor!
Field: She had the rhythm and the ear.
Blanchett: The rhythm and the ear, which bypassed psychology. As an actor, there’s so many ways into a role, and it doesn’t always have to be an intellectual connection. It’s something other, something mysterious. And she totally had that. I was in awe of what she did.
“Tár” opens in select theaters Oct. 14 and nationwide Oct. 28.