Tár might win Cate Blanchett her third Academy Award, but few have seen the psychological drama about a conductor coming undone
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Tár scored an impressive six Oscar nominations at today's announcement, including one for our very own Cate Blanchett — for the role that writer-director Todd Field (also nominated) created specifically for her.
But even though the movie was critically lauded when it was released in the US in October, it was a box office flop.
So you're probably scratching your head and wondering: What in tárnations is this movie about? Is Lydia Tár a real person? And is it worth spending more than two-and-a-half hours watching this?
Well, don't get agitato, let me just clear my throat, pick up my baton and begin.
First off, despite many believing otherwise, she is not a real person.
Played by Blanchett, the fictional Lydia Tár is the first woman chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, as well as a rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner.
She is an immensely talented, world-renowned maestro and wearer of incredible coats.
Blanchett told Jason Di Rosso on ABC RN's The Screen Show: "[Tár] is very restless, and rigorous and obsessive, like all great musicians, like all great artists are. And I think she has a very brutal and tough inner critic. I think that those qualities have enabled her to get to where she's gotten."
She's about to turn 50, release her memoir (Tár on Tár) and achieve a long-held dream: to conduct all of Mahler's symphonies.
"She's getting to the end of the cycle; she's summitting her career. And as a creator, the bravest, most boldest thing she can do is to step away, to burn it and leave and start again. But power is a very compelling and corruptive force," says Blanchett.
Tár is married to Sharon Goodnow (German stage and film actor Nina Hoss), her orchestra's concertmaster, and they have a young child.
But there are hints that Tár has had inappropriate sexual relationships with two former students, one of whom is now her assistant (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and the other her stalker (Sylvia Flote). She's also barely able to hide her interest in a young cellist (newcomer Sophie Kauer).
"What I really love about the movie is … it's a fall from grace," says Blanchett.
Blanchett had played the piano as a child and picked it up again in preparation for Tár. She also learnt German. As you do.
The Dresden Philharmonic orchestra stood in for the Berlin Philharmonic in the film. Blanchett had the support of Wolfgang Hentrich, first concertmaster of the orchestra, and was also coached by London-based Australian conductor Natalie Murray Beale.
"I realised from hours and hours and hours of watching various different conductors, watching interviews, watching orchestras play, it's a very idiosyncratic medium, so I had to find my own way," says Blanchett.
She describes playing a conductor as "exhilarating and addictive … But what is exhilarating is not the power, it's the sound that comes back at you".
Between Lydia Tár and her memorable turn in romantic drama Carol, Blanchett has managed to make a name for herself as a lesbian icon.
The straight actor responded to her icon status in Attitude, saying: "Yeah, baby! [Laughs] That's so nice! I don't know what it means, but it's nice. Yeah. Cool. I'll take it!"
Earlier this month, Blanchett took home the Golden Globe for best actress in a movie drama, as well as best actress at the Critics' Choice Awards.
She used her Critic's Choice acceptance speech to describe awards ceremonies as a "televised horse race" and call for a celebration of women's achievements: "Why don't we just say there is a whole raft of female performances that are in concert and in dialogue with one another?"
Her call is unlikely to impact her Oscars chances. If she manages to beat out other Oscars frontrunner Michelle Yeoh (who won the Golden Globe for lead actress in a movie comedy for Everything Everywhere All at Once), this would be the 53-year-old's third Academy Award win after 2005 (The Aviator) and 2014 (Blue Jasmine).
Alongside Blanchett and Field for best actress and director, Tár is nominated in the big one: Best Picture.
It's also been nominated for cinematography, film editing and writing (original screenplay).
Tár premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September to a six-minute standing ovation. When it opened in the US in October, parody social media accounts began to crop up as well as theories about the film's final act.
Mike Baard, managing director of Universal Pictures Australasia, the distributor for Tár, told The Sydney Morning Herald that film releases are often delayed for strategic, marketing reasons. That includes Tár, which is being released in Australia in sync with the Oscar nominations.
Baard said: "Unlike a big superhero movie or a star-studded romantic comedy, Tár is a film that requires more [commitment and understanding from the average audience]. I mean, it's two hours and 39 minutes. It's asking people to give up time. And it's also a challenging film – challenging in the best possible way."
Our critic Keva York wrote: "Although I would argue that Tár is not a polemic but a psychodrama, it's nevertheless true that the film is wilfully enigmatic."
It's unclear whether Tár is an attack on 'cancel culture' or the corrosive effects of institutional power, writes critic Keva York.
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian writes that Tár is an "entirely outrageous, delirious and sensual psychodrama" and that Blanchett's performance "will pierce you like a conductor's baton through the heart".
But Richard Brody in the New Yorker called it "a regressive film" and argued that the conductor was portrayed as a victim rather than a perpetrator.
He writes: "The movie scoots rapidly by the accusations that she faces; it blurs the details, eliminates the narratives, merely sketches hearings, leaves crucial events offscreen, and offers a calculated measure of doubt, in order to present her accusers as unhinged and hysterical."
Marin Alsop, the most famous woman conductor in the world and subject of the 2021 documentary The Conductor, is name-checked early in Tár and, as Zachary Woolfe points out in The New York Times, shares many biographical details with fictional Lydia Tár.
Alsop told The Times that after watching the film: "I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.
"To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking … There are so many men — actual, documented men — this film could have been based on."
Those include conductors Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti, who both faced #MeToo allegations but are both back at the podium after initial career fallout.
Blanchett told The Screen Show: "I think if a man had been at the centre of this film, you would not have had as nuanced an examination of the corruptive, corrosive nature of institutional power and power generally, because I think that we understand what that looks like…
"But we don't know what that looks like in a woman, it's something that we don't see a lot. So we're able to lean into the complexity of the question."
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Director Todd Field told The New Yorker: "The lines of power really interest me: Who enables it, and what benefit do they get from it? And when is it no longer a benefit?"
Originally an actor, Field made two critically acclaimed features in the early 00s — In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006) — but then disappeared, partly into development purgatory.
In The New Yorker, Field talked about his long journey to making this film and also revealed the hand that Tom Cruise had in shaping his career and saving In the Bedroom from Harvey Weinstein's notoriously heavy-handed edits.
You can watch Alsop's documentary, The Conductor, on Prime Video.
Then catch Knowing the Score, a documentary about Australian conductor Simone Young (executive produced by Blanchett), in cinemas from February 16 and premiering on ABC TV on March 21 at 9pm (and thereafter streaming on ABC iview).
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