Lydia (Cate Blanchett) on the podium. Sharon (Nina Hoss) watches her intently as first violin

The most surprising thing about Tár is that I didn’t find it slow despite all the complaints/observations I’ve seen. In fact I  was engaged throughout and quite shocked when it ended. But I did have problems. As usual with modern American films I found some of the dialogue hard to follow and I probably missed some crucial plot points. Reading back over the credits and casting, there was at least one significant character I seemed to have missed seeing at all. There is a great deal of plot and quite a bit isn’t explicated through dialogue or mise en scène. On reflection, I had learned about some of the plot before I saw the film but as is my usual practice, I forgot everything I’d learned previously and hoped to have it presented in the narrative. Despite these problems I followed the central narrative trajectory, but I look forward to seeing it again.

Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is Lydia’s assistant and potential deputy conductor

Let’s first agree that Cate Blanchett’s work on the film is extraordinary given the skills she had to learn and the fact that she is on screen through most of the 150+ minutes. I think many audiences have problems with the film because Blanchett’s character ‘Lydia Tár’ (we learn her real name later) is very cold and hard. I have no problem with a driven career artiste who has to be dispassionate in fighting her way to the top. Some of my favourite filmmakers appear to have been very difficult to work with and had chaotic lives. In the end I’m not fighting passionately for Lydia because of my real passion for two of the colleagues she abandons played by Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant, two actors with so much to give who play second fiddle (or ‘first violin’ in the case of Nina Hoss) to Cate Blanchett. That’s show business I guess.

Mark Strong chairs the foundation which helps young female conductors. Lydia is still supported by the foundation and works for it as a mentor . . .

What I liked about the film was the almost procedural narrative about the life of a great conductor. I found the opening interview, the selection of an LP/CD cover, the book cover etc. as fascinating as the audition procedure and the rehearsals process. In a sense these are all simply ‘colour’ or ‘cultural referents’ for Lydia’s story. I’m not a classical music fan but I’ve seen a lot of films and I’m an educated European person so to explore a great orchestra and how it approaches its repertoire is interesting without any dramatic narrative structuring. But when we get to the heart of the narrative here, several discourses are presented. The expected one is about Lydia’s status and how she maintains it. A second is the family melodrama involving Sharon (Nina Hoss) as Lydia’s wife and their child, Petra. This also engages with Lydia’s background story (what kind of family does she come from?). I won’t spoil the story for people who haven’t seen the film but as a clue I’ll simply observe that Lydia is almost completely sealed off from everyday life. There is a slight cheat here as Dresden stands in for Berlin in many scenes and Lydia travels to and from New York and Berlin by private jet and car. When she is confronted by life outside the world of the concert hall she struggles to deal with it. In fact Lydia is under constant pressure and might experience the city and her shared apartment, plus her private rehearsal rooms in much the same way as Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965), were it not for modern pharmaceuticals. I have seen the film described as a psychological thriller and I think there is evidence for that.

Lydia at the Juilliard School with the young person who doesn’t approve of Bach

But the narrative everyone is talking about is the social media/cancel culture narrative. The film has been seen as attacking social media and the way it nurtures potentially toxic relationships as well as the ways in which it enables the powerful to be ‘brought down’. The most frequently circulated clip is the incident in which Lydia gives advice to a young ‘BIPOC pangender‘ student (Wikipedia’s description) at the Juilliard School during a guest workshop. It’s good advice. If the student wants to conduct work in concert halls he needs to be able to understand the importance of Bach’s music and his place in the repertoire. This wouldn’t stop him also promoting interest in composers who are not ‘dead, white, cis men’. Lydia’s problem is that she doesn’t understand other people’s, and especially young people’s, take on modern life. As a result, her good advice is delivered in an unfordable way. I was going to comment on pedagogy here, but I realise that my ideas were forged in the different educational politics of the 1970s and I don’t really understand what happens in social media campaigns either. Writer-director Todd Field has a specific take on gender, age and cancel culture. He’s written a script in which all the central characters are women. So Lydia, who defines herself as a ‘U-Haul lesbian’, finds herself at odds with three different young women, each of whom are conversant with digital culture. In Field’s script the relationships between Lydia and the young women become toxic partly because of the hothousing of career aims alongside emotions and sexual desire. It’s dangerous territory for a male writer-director. But Lydia also creates conflicts with Sharon and other women she deals with, as well as struggling to develop her relationship with her daughter Petra. She hopes to express her love for her daughter by writing a song about her.

Olga (Sophie Kauer) the young cellist whose presence and brilliance disturbs Lydia

Todd Field is known as an actor from the 1980s and someone who was a student and later a working jazz musician. He began to direct in 2000 and had major success with In the Bedroom in 2001 and Little Children in 2005. Since 2006 he has worked on several projects as writer and/or director, but none have gone into production. It’s a long gap and does raise some questions. Tár is listed as an American film, but its constituent parts are anything but typical of an American studio production and more resemble a European film made with American money. In Sight and Sound, March 2023, Guy Lodge argues that Tár has lost the look of an American Independent film that defined Field’s earlier two films and looks more like “a contemporary European art film” and this ties in with its “intellectual, psychosexual fascinations”. I think I’d agree with that.

Lydia at work, rehearsing her live recording of Mahler and Elgar

Frustratingly, it is now very difficult to find production details on many American films, partly because US distributors don’t seem to offer Press Packs online in the same way as happens with most non-American festival films. Added to this, sources such as IMDb and, depressingly, Sight and Sound, increasingly now offer only limited production details. Tár is unusual in that the film starts with a whole range of technical credits, seemingly for several minutes. Needless to say it is difficult to remember them after the screening, but I noted that X-Filme, the Berlin company founded by Stefan Arndt, Wolfgang Becker, Dani Levy and Tom Tykwer seemed to be mentioned a lot and I think I saw German regional film funds and the Quebec Film Fund mentioned alongside groups of seemingly Thai production workers. If, as seems likely, X-Filme were responsible for much of the German shoot’s organisation, why isn’t this a co-production? Looking down the cast list and the crew list, there are no Americans in the leading parts or as creative HoDs apart from Field himself and the casting directors. It feels quite similar to a film like Corsage (Austria 2021), a film mainly in English but made in Europe. The language issue is interesting. I assume that English is essential for international concert musicians, so that Berlin Symphony Orchestra players would probably understand English. In the film some of Cate Blanchett’s lines are delivered in German and are subtitled. But quite a few aren’t, just as some of the music terms (in Italian?) are not explained to the non-musician. (There appear to be several in-jokes that I didn’t get.) The subtitles are also quite small and difficult to read, certainly not standardised as they are on most European prints. The film is judged to have done poorly in North American cinemas but seems to be more successful in Europe with a strong opening in France. The film has only just opened in Germany. I wonder if the subtitling is a problem for the multiplex audiences? (I also wonder if it is dubbed in some/many cinemas in France and Germany).

Lydia in her work apartment where she tries to write a song for Petra

Tár is a complex film with terrific performances and excellent technical credits. Cinematography is by Florian Hoffmeister, who has worked mainly in the international market and who shot two Terence Davies films, a good recommendation point I think. He shot for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio in the DCP print which provides Field with some useful establishing shots. I particularly enjoyed the shots of the concert hall in Dresden. Lydia’s world is often cold and blue. Coupled with Monica Witti’s editing, production design by Marco Bittner Rosser and art direction by Patrick Herzberg and Petra Ringlet, the film’s distinctive look owes much to German talent. The score is by Hildur Guðnadóttir, resident in Berlin but another with strong international credits. The film has already won various awards and I expect more to follow.

I don’t feel I can say much more until I can manage a repeat viewing, which I expect to be even more rewarding. Here is the rather good trailer which gives a helpful sense of the film’s style.