Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a world-renowed composer and conductor who believes that music is a multidimensional realm of time and movement.
In the opening scene of this brilliant film written and directed by Todd Field, she is being interviewed by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself). Lydia dazzles the live audience as she smoothly and smartly fields questions about what it was like being the protégé of Leonard Bernstein; her amazing triumph of winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards; and her love of Gustav Mahler’s music, especially the Fifth Symphony. (We thought if the movie had ended right there, it would have been worth watching for this wide-ranging discussion of the value and impact of music.)
Lydia divides her busy life between Berlin where she conducts the Berlin Philharmonic and New York where she teaches a master class at Julliard. On top of all that, she has just finished a new book which is filled with wisdom she has gathered through the years.
In an NPR Interview with Todd Field, he was asked, “What made you want to tell this story?” He answers:
“Well, I’d been thinking about this character for a very long time and sort of been asking myself some questions of how we look at power. Like, who has it? Who feeds it? Who benefits? From the beginning of time, that hasn’t really been a question. Those individuals have been male and the last 2,000 years, predominantly white males. So we’re attenuated to how we’re supposed to feel about that. And potentially, the tempo of arriving at that feeling narrows the possibilities of examining how the pyramid of power actually functions. So it felt sort of important that maybe our lead character wasn’t a male and that perhaps we would have a slightly more nuanced way of asking some questions.”
In the first part of Tar we watch a woman wield her power, which has been earned through her immense talent. Ambitious and competent, she nevertheless can’t avoid the stresses of a competitive world. As viewers, we soon realize that we are watching the beginning of a downfall.
At Julliard she berates and humiliates a student (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) as a “as a BIPOC, pan-gender person,” because he discounts the genius of the white male Bach. After learning that her daughter is being bullied at school, she confronts the bully with a viciousness that is frightening. Challenged by her wife (Nina Hoss), she succumbs to other power plays.
Throughout, Cate Blanchett delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that is both daring and unsettling. Viewers may alternate between thinking she is a monster to wondering if she is a victim of cancel culture, ostracized because the establishment cannot tolerate her success or her idiosyncrasies. It’s hard to decide whether to feel sorry for Lydia or to worry about her.
She seems to be confused as well. The strange noises she hears in her apartment at night not only indicate that her perfectionistic world is falling apart, they seem to be a metaphor for her increasing inability to handle both outer and inner noise.
Writer and director Todd Field challenges us to ponder the spiritual complexities of power through the lens of the particular world of orchestral music. But what he uncovers through the fascinating character of Lydia, upon reflection, will be more familiar than you expected her to be.