Cate Blanchett deserves her Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the imperious, narcissistic, unscrupulous orchestra conductor Lydia Tar, whose professional brilliance and sleek personal style have made her a global celebrity.
We meet her at the peak of her career. She is backstage about to make an entrance at her own book launch in a Manhattan auditorium. A couple of deep breaths, a tug on her new, impeccably hand-tailored mannish black jacket, a smoothing of her pulled-back blond hair and a toss of that high-cheekboned head and she’s ready to face her adoring public: a full house of New York’s affluent intellectual elite.
‘Lydia Tár is many things,’ says New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik, a real person who plays himself, and whose live onstage interview with this rock star intellectual is a neat way of delivering Tar’s backstory. He goes on to tell us that as well as being the first female conductor of a prestigious Berlin orchestra, she is a virtuoso pianist, a writer, a composer, an ethnomusicologist (special subject Andean music) and a member of the EGOT club – one of only 15 people in the world to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Wow.
They chat about the orchestras Lydia’s conducted, the music she’s composed, the films she’s scored, the books she’s written and the many awards she’s won. We also learn about her devotion to great composers like Mahler (she’s about to do a major live recording of his 5th symphony for Deutsche Grammophon) and great conductors like Leonard Bernstein, to whom she refers as ‘Lenny’. She gives good interview, and even if you aren’t a classical music buff you will find the conversation and her performance riveting.
The story so far looks like a documentary, and so thoroughly steeped is it in the world of high-end classical music, and so meticulously researched – all the references are to real-life performers, composers and conductors – that you have to remind yourself that Lydia Tar is a fictional character.
It’s only when the film moves on to examine Lydia Tar in close-up that we realise no fly-on-the-wall doco could capture such an intimate, revealing and ultimately unflattering view of any person.
Lydia has a busy life. She lives with her violinist wife Sharon and their adopted daughter Petra in a stylish apartment in Berlin. She lunches and gossips with exalted friends and colleagues. She rehearses her orchestra with unflagging perfectionism. She jets back and forth to the cultural capitals of the world. She has her world at her feet.
She doesn’t suffer fools. During an advanced conducting seminar at Juilliard, one of her students proclaims that as a BIPOC (Black Indigenous Person Of Colour) he can’t ‘get with’ Bach, on account of the composer’s patriarchal attitudes. She has no time for the inanities of modern identity politics and scathingly and scornfully dismisses his complaint.
I have to admit I cheered her on with this but it’s downhill all the way from here for Lydia in her personal and professional life, and in her likeability as a character.
Lydia Tar is not a nice person. She’s a sexual predator who’s left a trail of emotional damage in her wake. She tyrannizes her personal assistant, Francesca, a discarded conquest. She makes a nasty threat to one of Petra’s schoolfriends who may have bullied her child, who is, it seems, the only human being with whom Lydia’s relationship is not ‘transactional’, as Sharon puts it. She cheats on Sharon, and schemes against friends and colleagues to get what she wants.
The suicide of a former protégé – a young woman – marks the start of Lydia’s fall from grace. She tries to cover her tracks in this affair, erasing emails and pressing the unhappy Francesca to do the same, at the same time playing ruthless office politics to promote a young Russian cellist – female of course – to whom she has taken a fancy.
In the end, her hubris, her appetites and her disloyalty take their toll on her personal life and her career. Pride cometh before a fall, and she’s a textbook case.
Cate Blanchett has already won a Best Actress prize at Venice for her role as Lydia Tar. I think she deserves to win the Oscar although I haven’t seen the other performances.
My companion thought Tar a bit long. It is over 2 and a half hours, but I can’t think which bits should have been cut out and I found it engrossing throughout.