High Árt: the TÁR team on mapping their film’s tempo

Cate Blanchett as the monstrous maestro herself, Lydia Tár.
Cate Blanchett as the monstrous maestro herself, Lydia Tár.

As TÁR strides into wide release, we join Todd Field, Cate Blanchett and their collaborators on the red carpet to unpack the unraveling story of a fictional great. 

I feel profoundly changed by it. And, I hope, for the better. 

—⁠Cate Blanchett 

When we first encounter Lydia Tár, it is her voice we hear under the opening credits as she invites a Peruvian Shipibo healer, in her own time, to sing. When we next meet the famed fictional conductor (played by Cate Blanchett), she is asleep on a private jet, a silk mask over her eyes. We see her slumbering through the lens of a cell phone; she is being filmed by an unnamed traveler as they furtively text with another unknown acquaintance. 

And when we get the full Tár shortly thereafter, it is through a comically extensive introduction from real-life New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, which we hear as we watch a montage of her quirks: precise suit fittings, tic-filled warm-ups, superstitious rituals. To a rapt audience, Gopnik recites Tár’s many achievements: several years living with the aforementioned Indigenous Peruvians, a full trophy cabinet, podium spots with the world’s major orchestras, a champion of female conductors and the author of her own forthcoming memoir, Tár on Tár

Tár’s devoted assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) mouths along with Gopnik from the wings—she has authored the biography he reads from—while a mystery figure watches the talk from the back of the auditorium. Eventually, the camera settles on Tár herself, as she launches into performative monologues about tempo, gender and her hero, the great American conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein. Already we know, through these three scenes, that there are multiple dynamics at play in Todd Field’s intricate puzzle that is TÁR, even as the film sticks closely to its title character throughout. Tár may control time, but is hers about to run out? 

Noémie Merlant as Francesca, Lydia Tár’s well-suited assistant and an aspiring conductor herself.
Noémie Merlant as Francesca, Lydia Tár’s well-suited assistant and an aspiring conductor herself.

As many others have noted, those opening credits start where they usually end in order to arrive at the all-caps title: a symbol of Tár’s greatness, her ego, her EGOT (Bernstein himself never quite achieved the ‘O’). But I suspect it also signifies something that is equally, if not more, important to the film’s writer and director. It is, after all, no accident that “TÁR” is an anagram for “ÁRT”. 

“All of these artists, all of these filmmakers, have helped make a film that is far, far better than the film I wrote,” Field confirms when he arrives for the US premiere at Film at Lincoln Center’s 60th New York Film Festival. He has an absorbingly inclusive view of the collaborative artistry of movie-making, which extends to naming his cast and crew as often as possible in his few media appearances so far. 

Field began his screen career as an actor, after all; fans of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut will recognize him as Nick Nightingale, the blindfolded pianist who lets the cat out of the bag for Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill. And alongside his previous features, In the Bedroom and Little Children, his IMDb page lists many other talents—composing, singing, wielding a camera, operating a boom—that have put Field in almost every corner of a film set. Why should any one name get to go first, other than to satisfy certain financing requirements? 

 What is Lydia running towards—or from? 
 What is Lydia running towards—or from? 

“Todd is a very precise filmmaker and a lot of it was already there before the cutting,” his editor, Michael Haneke regular Monika Willi, demurs. “With such precise and passionate filmmakers, it’s more ‘the precision of the precision’ that we have to do.” She is perhaps too modest about her role, as CatPartyNYC writes in one of many lengthy Letterboxd odes to the film: 

TÁR is the greatest interpretation of symphony in cinematic form I have ever seen… Some scenes [exist] as single ten-minute-long takes, while other times we have sweeping, fluid shots through her cavernous home in Berlin, accompanied by quick little cuts like a staccato flourish from the string section of an orchestra. The film lifts us up with highs, tumbles us about, gently lowers us, and sweeps over us like a cool breeze, over and over. It is visual music that is expressed entirely through the eye of the camera and the rhythm of the cuts.” 

Willi delivers specific praise for the above-mentioned “one-er” that has everyone talking: soon after her New Yorker interview, Tár pops over to The Juilliard School to take a masterclass and, in the course of a single, ten-minute take, is challenged by a student who sees no reason in the year 2022 to laud the dead, white J. S. Bach, whereupon she proceeds to tear him to pieces via Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier: Prelude in C Major’. Is the camera on a steadicam rig? On a track hung from the ceiling? Where are the lights, the mics? These are thoughts that come later; in the moment, all eyes are on Blanchett. “This was probably one of the most breathtaking moments,” Willi says of the scene. “The development of it was so great. This was a lot of work regarding sound and I took the time to choose the right take because there were so many great takes. The thought was, from day to day, ‘oh, what a film, what an oeuvre’.”

As impeccably plotted as TÁR is on the page—Bach-like in its use of counterpoint to question our sympathies for any given character in any given scene—it’s evident that Field and his crew made sure the principal photography was flexible enough to allow the performers time to improvise. There are particular moments that feel shaped in the room, in the same way that Tár and her fictitious Berlin orchestra (played by the Dresden Philharmonic) work up Gustav Mahler’s ‘Symphony No. 5’ throughout the film. 

Field confirms this instinct when I ask him what he sought to find between the screenplay and the edit: “When you write a script, you invite people to collaborate, and when people such as Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, young Sophie Kauer, Allan Corduner and Adam Gopnik, my crew, other people show up, you sit back and you listen to what they have to say. You try to answer questions and if you can’t answer questions you realize that maybe the question needs to be answered.” 

Cellist Sophie Kauer as cellist Olga Metkina.
Cellist Sophie Kauer as cellist Olga Metkina.

English actress Sophie Kauer, who shines as orchestra newcomer Olga, affirms this, describing the time and space the actors were given to play in a heavily scheduled shoot day: “Despite a beautifully constructed script, we would often change the scene entirely when we got there on the day, which, you know, kept it spicy, kept it fresh, but it kind of added this element of naturalism to the film. And maybe I think it helped me as well.”

Olga is an out-of-the-box talent who catches Tár’s ear (and eyes) with her youthful mystique. In several key sequences, Blanchett and Kauer play a kind of musical cat-and-mouse; on a first viewing, and even a third, you are never quite sure who is the hunter and who is the prey. It’s an extraordinary early-career job to land, acting opposite the two-time Academy Award-winning Blanchett while being directed by the twice-nominated Field. 

“I can’t quite believe they were so generous with their time and advice,” she says. “From really, really small technical things to how to act in very, very difficult scenes. Like, very emotionally challenging scenes. But I wouldn’t say it’s exactly hard to act with Cate Blanchett. She’s incredible, right? You just bounce off her. An incredible experience, I still can’t quite believe it happened.” 

Lydia works with Olga on Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E Minor’. 
Lydia works with Olga on Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E Minor’. 

“I’m so very, very lucky—and we’re all very lucky—to see what she’s done,” says Field, who connected with Blanchett a decade ago for a different project the director was developing with his friend, the late Joan Didion. “That one didn’t pan out,” he tells me, “but Cate left a very distinct impression out of those conversations as a potential collaborator, and that’s precisely what this role required.” 

Field’s experiences on the lit side of the lens undoubtedly play a significant part in creating the conditions for Blanchett to bring her full self to Lydia Tár. And bring it, she does: whether she is toying sotto voce with a fellow conductor’s self esteem in a white tablecloth restaurant (poor Mark Strong), or shouting at her orchestra auf Deutsch, or running from her own paranoia, or dancing to Count Basie with her wife and co-parent Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also her concertmaster and First Violin—such is the web Tár has weaved. Watching the footage come into her editing suite, Willi recalls Blanchett’s work as “so brilliant and so breathtaking that there have been a lot of moments where I sat there seeing it for the first time and was blown away”. 

Sharon (Nina Hoss), Lydia (Cate Blanchett) and Count Basie on the stereo.
Sharon (Nina Hoss), Lydia (Cate Blanchett) and Count Basie on the stereo.

After Blanchett, Field’s next call was to another Academy Award-winner, Hildur Guðnadóttir. “I was the second person that he brought on after Cate,” the composer says, “so we’ve been having a lot of discussions and a lot of prolonged dialogue about the character formations, their inner tempos, their creative process, and their musical alignments and misalignments. We tempo-mapped the film, Todd and I, to understand the inner tempo, the inner music of the characters.” 

Guðnadóttir relishes this: “It was all about the process of making music, the process of creating, the process of rehearsing, the process of communicating in rehearsal. In the film, we never hear a finished piece, but we get a really intricate glimpse of what it is to write music, what it is to rehearse… what I’ve dedicated my life to. It’s such a fantastic opportunity to dive into that in a film. I think it’s more interesting than listening to a record or going to a concert because there are so many threads that are happening in this process.”

Guðnadóttir, who won her Oscar for Joker and also soundtracked Sarah Polley’s upcoming feature Women Talking, is cheekily name-checked in Gopnik’s introduction as one of several composers Tár has mentored. In reality, the Icelandic musician mentored Blanchettand wrote the piece of music that Tár is composing in the film. “Because we’re following her writing, I would have discussions with her about how to approach that, how you sit with it and how you try to explain what that process feels like.” 

“I feel shifted off my axis by the experience of making this film.” —Cate Blanchett
“I feel shifted off my axis by the experience of making this film.” —Cate Blanchett

Guðnadóttir teaches Blanchett, and in doing so, teaches us. While TÁR tackles many themes the general public can grasp and a composer can take her pencil to—power, elitism, identity, colonialism, handbags, schoolyard bullying and the cost of heating a luxuriously brutalist Berlin apartment—it also deepens our understanding about the very meaning and culture of music itself. What we don’t know inherently we can pick up instinctively, whether that’s the internal politics of an orchestra, or the reasons women don’t usually wear heels to a blind audition. As Marianna Neal writes, “TÁR is a movie that trusts the intelligence of its viewers”.

You don’t have to know who Simon Rattle is, or why Bernstein’s relationship with Mahler matters. But if you want to (and trust me, you will), you can amplify your connection with both this work of art and the work of the artists it hat-tips by jumping onto free, decidedly non-elite platforms like YouTube, for Bernstein’s ‘Art of Conducting’ lectures. Or Letterboxd, for reviews such as Coffee’s memories of orchestral life (“how anxious and depressing it is to always be playing to large empty spaces, to abandoned classrooms, to nobody in your own home”), and Eric Zhu’s paragraphs about the significance of the central symphony:  

“Mahler 5 is an obvious choice not just because of its gargantuan stature, and Mahler’s connection as a composer known contemporaneously primarily as a conductor but also because this is a piece with storied history, the Adagietto famously used and referenced in TÁR as the central motif in Death in Venice (a literary adaptation also about gay sexual impropriety in front of and behind the camera and also a film surrounding a troubled conductor) in addition to the piece’s origins as right after an encounter with death.”

Some cast members came to TÁR fully baptized into music (Kauer, who is a cellist, and Allan Corduner, a jazz and classical pianist who plays Tár’s assistant conductor, Sebastian), whereas Hoss and Blanchett both learned their respective violin and conducting skills for the job. As befitting her character’s illustrious reputation and desire for the spotlight, Blanchett brings a dramatic lust to Tár’s conducting style. 

Lydia, her concertmaster and wife Sharon, and the Dresdner Philharmonie as her fictional Berlin orchestra.
Lydia, her concertmaster and wife Sharon, and the Dresdner Philharmonie as her fictional Berlin orchestra.

“Holy guacamole!” the actress exclaims when I ask what she learned about herself from the intensely physical work (that really is her leading the orchestra on the soundtrack). “I feel shifted off my axis by the experience of making this film. I’m not being disingenuous, but I don’t quite… I haven’t fully processed the experience yet, even though we finished shooting a year ago. I don’t know yet, to be honest.” 

All of these artists, all of these filmmakers, have helped make a film that is far, far better than the film I wrote.

—⁠Todd Field

Processing requires time, and time is both the enemy and the accomplice in TÁR: the time it has taken Field and his artists to bring the film to the screen, and the times that it has been released into. The snail’s pace at which the classical world moves, and the quickness of a tweet. The way Lydia Tár has only a minute for one person, and a whole night for another.

It’s the chronos and the kairos of the strangely wonderful gift that is any immersive, ephemeral artwork—a film, a concert, a play, a dance—where life outside the theater carries on at pace for, in this case, 158 minutes while inside, time slows as Tár’s ambitiously crafted world unravels over several months. And the weeks that follow, when our synapses start tickling, connecting a seemingly small detail in one section to a line of dialogue in another; the work of a production designer connecting to a costume detail connecting to a composer’s refrain, all the instruments of this filmmaking orchestra playing their part. 

What Blanchett does know: “The process of actually bringing music back into my life and the encounter with the Dresdner Philharmonie, I feel profoundly changed by it. And, I hope, for the better. It’s been very rich, and very deep.”

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