Take a fresh look at your lifestyle.

- Advertisement -

Cate Blanchett about ‘Tár’ role: ‘Music is often the starting point for me’

About an hour after I saw ‘Tár’, I received a text from the friend who had joined the screening. Fresh off our two-and-a-half-hour immersion in the collapsing world of conductor-composer Lydia Tár — played by Cate Blanchett — my friend went looking for Tár’s work. After some fruitless scrolling, it clicked.

“Wait, so she’s fictional?” read the message. “Not a real person…”

Non-classical people like my friend could easily be forgiven for mistaking Blanchett’s Tár, an American conductor who leads an orchestra in Berlin, for the genuine article. Writer-director Todd Field’s capture of the classical world is so evocative, and Blanchett’s habitation so compelling, that the boundary between Tár’s world and ours feels as thin as a curtain of light.

At first glance, ‘Tár’ could be a drama about cancellation culture—suggesting that the failures of moral purity are as inevitable as Beethoven’s next note. But like a good symphony, over time the film reveals its deeper psychological and cultural concerns: the adjustments we make in the name of genius, the reliable abuse of power, the familiar excuse of art.

Review: Ann Hornaday gives ‘Tár’ 4 stars

Field received tips from conductor and author John Mauceri and worked extensively with the Dresden Philharmonic, and Blanchett had her own crash courses with conductor Natalie Murray Beale. (She also had to learn some German and learn to play the piano again.) Her performance suggests that she has absorbed not only lessons about what goes on on stage, but also the history that weighs each wave of the baton.

But beyond this amazing veracity, “Tár” is primarily a movie for listeners.

Together with Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which forms the fused musical core of the film, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor (op. 85) plays an important supporting role. Other contemporary and classical works run through the film: Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” appears, as does the Offertorio from Verdi’s “Requiem,” Wagner’s overture “Tannhäuser,” and Bach’s prelude in C major and fugue. Well-tempered keyboard. A sort of leitmotif for Lydia is provided by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s heartbreaking “Ró”.

A lively NSO gala celebrates the extension of the Noseda era

An original score by Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadottir (mentioned in the film) gives Lydia’s Berlin a disturbing weather. And non-classical sounds find their way in – little memories of a world beyond the concert hall and traces of humanity often left in the wake of the compelling conductor. We hear Count Basie, Cole Porter and a haunting thread from Lydia’s academic past in the form of an icaro of the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian rainforest, sung by shaman Elisa Vargas Fernandez.

“Tár” is Field’s first film in 16 years (after 2001’s “In the Bedroom” and 2006’s “Little Children”), and he wrote the part especially for Blanchett. “In every way,” he says in a statement from the director, “this is Cate’s movie.”

I spoke to Blanchett and Field by Zoom last week to talk about ‘Tár’, music, and the dangers that come with any creative spike.

Q: The classic world in the movie could have been completely fictionalized, but it was full of names and situations that we recognize. What was important in keeping the real world so close to the world of the movie?

Cate Blanchett: Personally, I think to jump into the film’s more metaphysical, existential ending, you have to have it rooted in a very possible today. I sensed that from the script.

Todd field: This character is talking about Nathalie Stutzmann, she is talking about Marin Alsop, she is talking about MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] and Bernstein and all the usual suspects. It’s so important that you’d talk about Hank Aaron and Whitey Ford and Roger Maris like this was a baseball movie. That’s the world she comes from. It’s not like there will be a test for anyone outside of this milieu. It’s more important that you understand that it’s in there, and that it’s real and immediate and that there’s some kind of real fundamental underpinning.

Michael Tilson Thomas and NSO Offer a Grand Panorama of American Music

Q: Cate, I was curious about your relationship with classical music for this film and how you prepared.

Blanchett: I was taken to concerts as a child and learned to play the piano as a girl, but I more or less gave it away. I was much more kinesthetic, much more into dance. But I think dance, like music, makes language obsolete, and I’m always so grateful in a movie when you don’t have to talk, which of course wasn’t the case with this script.

But for me music is often the starting point for unlocking the atmosphere in which a character lives, or the spirit of a character. So if you look at the structure of Mahler’s Fifth, there seemed to be Lydia Tár’s arc in it – all these unspoken riddles about love and life that she experienced and fought against. So obviously it was hugely important in this case and an incredible privilege to work with musicians and stand up for the Dresden Philharmonic. I’m always happy when I can find the beat or song that speaks to the soul of the character.

Q: Todd, Cate mentioned the structure of [Mahler’s 5th] be present in Lydia’s bow. Did that symphony influence how you composed the story? It felt like it was progressing in a series of movements.

Field: Without getting too similar about it, the Five certainly informs it. In my first conversations with John Mauceri, he honestly asked me, “What’s your favorite piece of classical music?” And as an apologist, I said, “The Five.” And I felt that way because it’s a lot of people’s favorite music. And he said, ‘No, you shouldn’t be afraid of that. It is an essential hub in terms of concert music. You should embrace it.’

There’s so much around that piece of music, like Lydia unwraps in the beginning, which has to do with when [Mahler] wrote, for whom he wrote it, how it changed over the years. Mahler was an obsessive revisionist. So much so that there is still a fight about what the final interpretation of the Mahler Five is. Of course it depends on your point of view. Lydia’s position would be the start. Another academic’s point of view, it could be the end or the middle. It’s a piece of music that’s still in process, so it’s kind of appropriate for this movie.

Q: I found myself excusing all sorts of little lies and manipulations, especially through the first act, and more or less diminishing their impact as the price of genius. If I watch this movie again now, it will feel like an indictment of my attention because of the sheer amount of detail I ignored, all so that I could keep Lydia’s mythology alive. How about the mythology surrounding the role of the conductor before you worked on this film? Has it changed?

Blanchett: I think on a Greek level she is the architect of her own demise. We see [Lydia] at a time when she is coming to the end of a creative movement in her life – that’s why she focuses on legacy. And I think as an artist, if you start thinking about legacy, that’s where your downfall lies. But at the same time, I think part of a conductor’s power, and their authority to hold sway over the huge human instrument that is an orchestra, is their personality. So you have to keep that in balance.

What I found really fascinating – and I still kind of live with what it means to me personally – is that when you overcome what’s seen as a high point in someone’s career, you know you’re at the top and the only way to move forward is running downhill. When you get to that climax, you want to hold onto it so tight, and that’s incredibly human. When you look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s work you think she paints mountains and in fact she only paints anthills. So it doesn’t necessarily have to lead the world’s largest orchestra. What I find really noble about [Lydia] is that she knows she has to ignite, and that it will be brutal and embarrassing and will have huge consequences.

Q: There’s a wonderful presence of time as a medium of sorts in the film – a sort of legato smoothness of the long takes, and then things transition into this more staccato third act. How did you want time and pace to play a role in telling the story?

Field: It is calibrated in a specific way, in the same way as if you had tempo changes within a piece of music. Even until last summer, when [composer] Hildur Gudnadottir and I sat down and started working on it… we talked about the pace of the characters. For example, Cate was always running at 120 beats per minute – so during production she had something in her ear and she was always running at 120 beats per minute. While, say, Olga, the young cellist [played by cellist Sophie Kauer], would run at 60 beats per minute. That determined a lot in how we dealt with Tár, because except for two corners, she is in every frame. When she moves, we move. We never let her down, so she really sets the pace. The propulsion and engine are strictly determined by Cate.

Q: It was great to see musicians [such as Kauer] turn into acting. How has exposure to so much music affected your process?

Blanchett: I actually started the conducting process by looking at: [the late Soviet conductor] Ilya Musin’s master classes online. … My friend [conductor] Natalie Murray Beale, who helped me prepare, said, “You won’t fully understand the music or the experience until you’re on stage and hear the sound come to you and through you.”

There was a conversation that Todd and I had very early on when Todd was thinking about casting an actor who has access to the cello? Or a cellist who can, who can perform? And in the end the decision was made to go for a cellist. Sophie showed up and I was just amazed at her facility. For her, who is still a student in Denmark, playing with the Dresden Philharmonic was nerve-wracking at best. She had a life imitating art, where she was the chosen one and she was a student, which kinda happens with [the character] Olga. There were so many parallels. Watching her confidence grow was such a privilege – but then seeing her as an actor!

Field: She had the rhythm and the ear.

Blanchett: The rhythm and the ear, which bypassed psychology. As an actor, there are so many ways to get a part, and it doesn’t always have to be an intellectual connection. It’s something else, something mysterious. And she totally had that. I was impressed with what she did.

“Tár” opens in select theaters October 14 and October 28 nationwide.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.