Why does that accent mark hover over Lydia Tár’s name? She’s the title character of writer-director Todd Field’s “TÁR.” The accent mark doesn’t affect the pronunciation any. Instead it’s there as garnish, a further gilding of what’s already a rather stupendous classical music lily.
This is Field’s first movie since “Little Children” (2006) and only his third. “In the Bedroom” (2001) is the other one. “TÁR” is ambitious, unusual, forceful, and ultimately frustrating, an emotional epic that’s also a nose-against-the-glass view of classical music and unconventional take on the #MeToo movement in that world.
A virtuoso of virtuosity, Lydia Tár is more resume than character. That she remains so vivid and compelling nonetheless is one of Cate Blanchett’s many, many achievements in playing her, but we’ll get to those.
Lydia is music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and — wait, there’s an “and”? If you’re Odin in Asgard there shouldn’t be a need for conjunctions, but Lydia’s big on “ands” and “alsos.” She’s also a gifted composer and pianist and soon-to-be author. We see her interviewed at The New Yorker Festival. We hear her interviewed by Alec Baldwin. We’re even told that she’s an “EGOT,” winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. (What did the Tony come for, conducting the pit band for a revival of “Song of Norway”?) Clearly, “Tár” rhymes with “superstár.”
“In today’s world, ‘varied’ is a dirty word,” Lydia says, her highly varied voice full of unvaried scorn. Lydia is a runner (of course she is). She’s a boxer, or at least boxing is part of her gym routine. It certainly fits her personality. She’s a mother. She’s a spouse. Her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), is the Berlin concertmaster. That a music director would be married to her orchestra’s concertmaster is one of an accumulating number of “TÁR” implausibilities, though maybe the point is that whatever Lydia wants Lydia gets. Is there anything Lydia can’t do? Yes, as her assistant points out, “You never gain weight.” Oh, and she’s not a very persuasive liar.
The idea behind amassing so much excellence, performance, and accomplishment is to place Lydia on her cultural/celebrity pedestal as high up as possible, and thus make all the more impressive her eventual plummet. That’s not a spoiler. You must have seen it coming. Fame is the name of the narrative game only when infamy awaits.
The combination of ambition and charisma and entitlement that has made Lydia such a success on the podium has also meant that she doesn’t see any rules applying to her behavior. She’s the conductor of her own conduct, and that conduct includes a history of predatory relationships with aspiring young female colleagues. Among them is that assistant (Noémie Merlant, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”).
Field does several daring things with “TÁR.” For starters, it’s hard to think of a subject more alien to a Marvel- and DC-dominated Hollywood than classical music (though Lydia, in her own way, is a sort of superhero — supervillain, too). Then again, “TÁR” may be a harbinger. Lydia’s great mentor is Leonard Bernstein. “Maestro” is set to come out next year. That’s Bradley Cooper’s Bernstein biopic. He plays Bernstein, directs, and cowrote (talk about being a superstár).
For literal starters, Field begins the movie with what would normally be the closing credits, the really long ones, and has them run in reverse order, i.e., with the smallest job categories coming first (though without the actors listed). It’s his way, perhaps, of indicating that what follows will be a subversion of the popular assumption that it’s individual genius that drives cultural achievement. He’s putting Lydia, and us, on notice.
Two of the daring things are formal. Once those closing/opening credits are out of the way, we watch that New Yorker Festival interview. The fawning interviewer is the writer Adam Gopnik, playing himself. An inspired way to fill in the audience on Lydia’s background, it’s like an oral c.v. Here, as often in the movie, Field uses long takes to excellent effect, most notably in the several scenes of Blanchett rehearsing the Berlin Phil.
Those long takes wouldn’t work if not for Blanchett. We keep hearing about Lydia’s remarkableness. Blanchett shows it. Playing a powerhouse character, she gives a powerhouse performance. For the role, she learned how to play the piano, speak German, and conduct an orchestra. She won best actress honors at this year’s Venice Film Festival and is seen as a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Hoss and Merlant are fine. Julian Glover, as Lydia’s Berlin predecessor, is great fun in the movie’s plummiest role. But in most respects the movie is Blanchett’s performance. What drives “TÁR” is learning the limitations of its title character’s stupendousness. There are no visible limitations on Blanchett’s performance, which truly is stupendous.
For much of the movie, the bravura of Blanchett’s acting masks the fact that the character she’s playing verges on high-brow cartoon. The tony references pile up: Bernstein, Curtis Institute, Harvard, University of Vienna (Lydia’s an alum of all three), “MTT” (conductor Michael Tilson Thomas), “Gustavo” (Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), “DG” (Deutsche Grammophon, the classical record label), and that’s just a smattering of names. It gets a bit silly, actually, three parts verisimilitude to two parts showing off.
The hifalutin’ proper names define Lydia the way high-priced brands define a Kardashian. In both cases, personality and emotion are beside the point — assuming they actually exist. Name-dropping is meant to do the work of character creation. The line between capturing a milieu and wallowing in lifestyles of the rich and creative is a thin one.
It doesn’t help that Lydia tends to talk like Joan Crawford putting on airs. “Sleep’s elusive,” she says of her insomnia. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” she says to Sharon (yeah, right!). The movie’s increasingly thicker streak of phony baloney-ness reaches a climax when Lydia has a moment worthy of the Judy Garland “A Star Is Born” (though the moment is James Mason’s). That’s bad. What’s worse is that the movie still has another 20 or 25 minutes to go. You don’t mind as much as you might, since those minutes still involve Blanchett. But you do feel a bit embarrassed for her. It’s hard to feel embarrassed for Lydia.
Written and directed by Todd Field. Starring Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 158 minutes. R (some language and brief nudity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.