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Movie Review: Tár

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Writer-director Todd Field conceived his new movie, "Tar," about a symphony conductor, with Cate Blanchett in mind. In fact, Field says, if she hadn't agreed to play the part, he would not have made the movie. Critic Bob Mondello says the filmmaker's faith in his star is well placed.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Conductor Lydia Tar is the kind of famous person who needs no introduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

ADAM GOPNIK: (As self) If you're here, then you already know who she is.

MONDELLO: So of course she's getting one...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

GOPNIK: (As self) Lydia Tar is many things.

MONDELLO: ...From Adam Gopnik, the real-life writer for The New Yorker, playing himself, who's about to interview her for an audience that's as eager to see her as she is eager to be seen. The camera is on Lydia, standing backstage as she has a thousand times in concert halls and many times in lecture halls. And though you'd think this would all be second nature, she looks as if she'd flee if she could. Until...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

GOPNIK: (As self) Thank you for joining us, maestro.

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) Thank you.

MONDELLO: She's on and charming, chatting about music and conducting and how what she does in setting the pace - the time for an orchestra - is central to its interpretation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) You cannot start without me. See; I start the clock. In my left hand...

MONDELLO: Someone this concerned with control, you sense, is almost telegraphing that she's afraid of losing control. But as inhabited by Cate Blanchett, Lydia is quite ostentatiously in control.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) Now, the illusion is that, like you, I'm responding to the orchestra in real time...

GOPNIK: (As self) Right, right.

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) ...Making the decision about the right moment to restart the thing or reset it or throw time out the window altogether. The reality is...

MONDELLO: Lydia is performing and has the audience rapt. And afterwards, a young woman approaches, as young women apparently often do. Lydia is the first female conductor of a German symphony orchestra, which makes her a role model. And she has a child with the woman who is first violin for that orchestra, which makes her another kind of role model. As her assistant ushers Lydia away from the female admirer and Lydia lingers, writer-director Todd Field gives us our first glimpse of an artist who thinks boundaries don't apply, and that's reinforced in a different way when she publicly shreds a student conductor who's challenged the orthodoxy of dead, white, male composers at a class at Juilliard.

Her cruelty with the student and with her assistant and even with her life partner is something she does not display at talks with The New Yorker. But at orchestra rehearsals for an upcoming recording of Mahler's "Fifth Symphony," she is breathtaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) (Inaudible) crescendo.

MONDELLO: Blanchett, whose way with even the most ordinary line has enough tonal modulation to make her voice seem a musical instrument, learned not just to conduct an orchestra and to play piano but to speak German for this part.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) Please, please, please, please, you must watch. (Speaking German).

MONDELLO: As impressive as Blanchett's performance is, it's matched by Field's script, which rewards close listening not just for its wit and precision, but for the way it conveys the dissonance that creeps into Lydia Tar's life - say, in the musical intervals that distract her - in a distant scream, a police siren, what sounds like a doorbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) I keep hearing something.

MONDELLO: After earning eight Oscar nominations with his first two films, "In The Bedroom" and "Little Children," Field took 16 years to devise "Tar." And considering the nuanced balance he's striking between Lydia's predatory, manipulative behavior and the aesthetic perfection of her work, it's hard to begrudge him a moment of that time. With Blanchett at the center of virtually every scene, "Tar's" portrait of an artist who attempts to conduct life and is upended by her conduct in life feels so fiery and passionate it blisters. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF MAHLER'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C-SHARP MINOR - 4. ADAGIETTO. SEHR LANGSAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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