Cate Blanchett is a conductor on fire in epic drama by Todd Field
Photo: Director Todd Field (l) answers reporter’s questions about his new film “Tar” starring Cate Blanchett/Dwight Casimere
By Dwight Casimere
Meet Lydia Tar, first-ever female Principal Conductor to the world’s most important Classical music institution, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. A gifted composer and self-described “U-Haul lesbian”, she is a complex, and often, contradictory person. As the titled character, Cate Blanchet wields her considerable acting chops with the same ferocity she uses with her baton in conducting Mahler’s commanding Fifth Symphony, which plays like a leitmotif throughout director Todd Field’s brilliantly executed film ”Tar” now in theatres everywhere.
Executive produced by its star, Cate Blanchett, the film was a Centerpiece premiere at the 60th New York Film Festival and a Member’s Screening at the 58th Chicago Film Festival. The film had its World Premiere at the 79th Venice Film Festival in September.
Tar takes us behind the scenes in the highly rarified and stratified world of classical music at the world’s most prestigious orchestra. Director Field crafts an intricate character study around the daily events of its titled character whose life is unraveling at the very apex of her career, a much-anticipated performance of Gustav Mahler’s towering Symphony No. 5.
It should be noted that every musical performance by the actors in the film, is authentic, right down to Blanchett composing at the piano and conducting the orchestra.
“It seemed like such a simple idea,” director Field expressed at the post-screening news conference at the 58th New York Film Festival. “Everybody who is on the screen making music should actually be making the music.
“Anyone who Is in the performing arts will find that they are sort of fluid, interchangeable disciplines that require the same sort of sensibilities that have to do with sound and rhythm and things like that.”
Among the actor/musicians is Sophie Kauer, as a budding Russian cellist who, in the film, auditions for a vital solo in Tar’s upcoming recording of the final Mahler Symphony. There’s drama associated with it, as she unseats a senior orchestra member who had presumed that she had been promised the role.
Kauer, by the way, is not Russian, yet she beat out hundreds of candidates for the role. Director Field explained:
“We must have auditioned a hundred actresses and cellists for the part, and then this video just came out of the clouds. When I asked her how she was able to nail the Russian accent, she said ‘You Tube!’
“That actor, including Cate Blanchett, is actually playing every note you see played by the actor in real time. Yes, that is she at the Steinway, playing as if her character were in the throes of composition.“
The authenticity of performance extends beyond the film. A vinyl recording of the film’s score will be released in January with a cover photo of Cate Blanchett conducting the London Philharmonic. The album will feature the works of Sir Edward Elgar. The recording was done at the famed Abbey Road EMI Studios in London, where Elgar did the original recording in 1934 at the studio’s inauguration. (That factoid is part of the new film “Abbey Road,” directed by Paul McCartney’s daughter, Mary. The film was featured at the 58th Chicago Film Festival.)
Back to the film. Just as Tar has a Svengali like hold on the members of her orchestra, her personal life is the very antithesis. There are intimations that someone is stalking her, but we never see whom. There are also strange noises, such as a doorbell that rings intermittently in the distance from some unknown source. No matter, Tar incorporates the sound into the music she is writing. (Just as Mahler incorporated the sounds of distant cowbells, birds and hunting horns as offstage sounds in his music).
She returns to her Berlin apartment from a master class at Julliard to confront a Tsunami of personal crisis.
Her home is a psychological Bluebeard’s Castle with each room harboring it’s own secret emotional trauma. There’s her manic-depressive wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also the orchestra’s concertmaster, in a state of emotional collapse. There are hints that Tar is a contributor to Sharon’s devolution. Tar may be pilfering Sharon’s meds and then gas-lighting her wife as to their whereabouts. Then there’s their all-too-adult pre-teen daughter. (She would not have survived my mother’s wrath or her backhand-to-the-mouth!)
To complicate things, there’s an affair with a young protégé that results in suicide.
The icing on the Freudian cake is fellow conductor Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) he has a Salieri-like envy of Tar’s towering genius. He wants her to turn over a copy of her performance score with all of her personal notes on tonal dynamic and rhythmic nuance.
His desire is almost vampire. He’ll do anything to get his hands on it.
Then, there’s the sex scandal. Tar was undergoing filming at about the same time as the James Levine/NY Phil sexual harassment scandal was unfolding. That and similar abuse claims at other major orchestras rocked the Classical music world. I asked Field if, as he was writing the script, he felt like the explosive topic would overtake his original concept of a carefully constructed character study.
“It’s just a Fact!” he said emphatically. “It’s public and that is what these characters would be talking about. It’s in the air. It’s a manifestation of the tempo of the time.”
Speaking of tempo, the music of acclaimed cellist and composer Hildur Guonadottir is just as much an on-screen player as the actors. Her cadences underscore their every movement.
“There’s one scene where Tar and young Sophie are walking toward each other,” Field explained. “If you were to put a metronome on them, you would see that Tar is walking at 120 beats per minute and Sophie is walking at 60. The timing of the music shows the contrast between what is symbolically Tar’s older and younger self. There’s a great deal of score in this film that you may not be aware of, but its definitely there and there’s real intent behind it.”
With shimmering cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister and seamless editing by Monika Willi, Tar is both a music-lover’s delight and a treasure for those who like to just watch a masterpiece unfold before their eyes. For more, visit FocusFeatures.com.
(Editor’s Note: Cate Blanchett will receive the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Outstanding Performer of the Year Award at its 38th annual festival. It is the second time that the actress has received this honor from the festival. The award will be presented at the festival on February 10, 2023.
Petra is a little girl. She is under the age of ten. She is not a pre-teen. WTF?
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Cate Blanchett is a conductor on fire in epic drama by Todd Field