Cate Blanchett takes up a baton for the story of Lydia Tár but misses the fire of a great conductor and underplays the struggles of female conductors in Todd Field’s new film, Tár
I went into Tár feeling sympathetic towards Marin Alsop’s view that in terms of authenticity, the lead character – a selfish, power-playing conductor – should obviously have been a man. I came out thinking that a bigger problem wasn’t so much the sex of the lead character as the lack of it. Ridiculous as it sounds – you heard it here first – Cate Blanchett isn’t very sexy in the role.
Charisma, charm, magnetism, personality, sex appeal – whatever you want to call it, there’s an intangible something about great conductors. They look you in the eye and you will do anything for them. It’s one of the most important tools in their armoury and one of the reasons that musical relationships often cross boundaries.
Blanchett is all subtle glances, tension and tics. She does well with the physicality of conducting and her baton work is nearly convincing, but she lacks the quality that allows conductors to get away with what they want in the first place (paradoxically, since it also defines Hollywood stars) – charisma. The elegant angles of her face remain Sphinx-like throughout, as rigid and cold as the walls of her beautiful brutalist Berlin apartment. She’s more likely to lecture her musicians than to lure them into submission through the sheer force of her will, as great conductors do – male or female.
It’s hard to know whether this is intentional. Is it an observation about female conductors not being able to be as free and insistently themselves as men? Is it to describe Tár’s specific cold personality (she keeps everyone at a distance, even her daughter, who calls her Lydia)? Or is it suggesting she’s at a particular point of crisis? I’m not sure.
The consequence is that it feels like two overlapping films. One is about conductors and the power games they play; the other about a successful, complex, middle-aged woman watching (or maybe precipitating) her carefully assembled life fall apart. Blanchett seems more successful in the latter, especially as the end unfolds and we learn more of her back story, but she blanches from the real nastiness and discomfort of the former, where punches are pulled. There’s a moral ambiguity to the story that would certainly be less convincing if the protagonist were a man.
That seems to be the intention. On Woman’s Hour, Blanchett explained that they couldn’t have examined the ‘corrupting nature of power in as nuanced a way... if there was a male because we understand what that looks like’. As I understand her, power play and abuse by male conductors is so obvious and normal that to make it interesting they had to make the lead character female. Maybe the nuance makes it more compelling for a general audience, but it is also less convincing for those of us who observe the business.
Blanchett went on to say, ‘It’s a meditation on power and power is genderless.’ This might be true in the theatre world, but it’s certainly not the case in classical music. Most egregiously of all, one of Tár’s diatribes in the film is about how women conductors of the previous generation – name checking Alsop and Nathalie Stutzmann – had it easy and stood on the shoulders of Nadia Boulanger. This is so patently false that it’s either supposed to convey Tár’s own skewed thinking or to justify the premise of the gender swap. Either way, it misrepresents a business that is only in this generation coming to terms with equality, and still has a long way to go. (Some statistics from ISM here: of discriminatory incidents, 96% identified male perpetrators and 4% female; 11.2% of UK conductors are women.)
You can see why Alsop (the first female conductor to lead the last night of the BBC Proms as recently as 2013) is miffed. One of the few experiences I’ve had of her conducting was watching a concerto competition where performance after performance, the male concertmaster would wait until the exact moment that Alsop raised her baton to push his spectacles up his nose, forcing her to wait – clear power play. He did this several times until finally, Alsop bounded on to the platform and started without him. Maybe that kind of thing happens with male conductors, but I doubt it. It served as a reminder of the battles women conductors have had to face. To downplay that struggle is quite wrong.
That said, I enjoyed Tár. It’s strikingly filmed, with Berlin Brandenburg Film Commission’s money well spent – Berlin looks beautifully blue and achingly cool. The scenes shot around music – rehearsals in the Berlin Philharmonie, auditions, meetings or backstage – feel real and normal. That’s just as well, because I could fill the Albert Hall with the holes in the dialogue, albeit not as bad as previous representations of classical music. ‘I’m suspicious of the E natural in the cello line,’ Tár says after a rehearsal, or ‘I managed to pull from the strings in the last movement’ and ‘They’re getting caught up in the power of your glissando.’
Unlike most professional musicians I’ve spent time with, these ones talk about music out of the blue the whole time – pulling out academic references about Beethoven and Mozart over lunch, vindicating Furtwangler over coffee or popping in specially to point out that the clarinet was too loud in the slow movement. There’s a classic cliché when Tár is stuck composing on her piano and hears an alarm in a neighbouring flat that gives her the inspiration for her next phrase – Cary Grant did something similar in the Cole Porter biopic Night and Day (given they included some Cole Porter in the soundtrack I wonder if this was intentional).
There are other inventions. Tár is seen with a plaster on her baton finger – has anyone ever wielded a baton so hard they needed a plaster? And I wonder which orchestras go into rehearsal without knowing what repertoire they’re going to perform. My personal favourite is the copy of The Baton magazine she picks up at a newsagent stand that is full of classical music titles. As a former Editor of a magazine called The Strad, I dream of such a world.
Alsop is upset that the details of Tár’s life match hers: the researchers were obviously aiming at verisimilitude, often sailing close to the wind. Characters include Andris Davis and amateur conductor Elliot Kaplan, and there’s a discussion about James Levine and Charles Dutoit, as well as a side-reference to Plácido Domingo. Tár makes fun of Michael Tilson Thomas’s symphonic endings and dismisses the sexy publicity photos of artists including Janine Jansen. There’s a little historically accurate vignette about blind auditions being undermined by the sound of shoes and a nod to Dudamel lining up his dolls like an orchestra as a child. All nice touches for us geeks (although the ending is so unconvincing as to be like a bad punchline.)
How will this all go down with non-classically oriented viewers? They might come out with some understanding of what classical music does, although ironically the best explanation of this comes late on with a long clip of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic lectures. If they come out thinking that female conductors are the same as male conductors, they will certainly have a distorted view. But as someone who moans on about the lack of classical music in everyday life, I can only be pleased that Tár is out and getting so much attention. I can also look forward to my next concert with Corinthian Chamber Orchestra – with a real and convincing female conductor (Rebecca Tong).