Cate Blanchett is playing a fierce conductor in her new film, Tár. She talks to Richard Morrison about the need for discipline in the arts and how she benefitted from harsh treatment.
Down the Zoom link from rural South Australia, Cate Blanchett sounds simultaneously commanding, energised, laid-back and gently self-mocking. “You’ve caught me at a barbecue,” she says. “How Aussie is that?”
Physically, she may be back in her homeland. Mentally, she is clearly still wrapped in thoughts about a role that took her deep into the heartland of European culture. In Todd Field’s new film, Tár, the American director’s first movie for 16 years, the 53-year-old actress plays a celebrated orchestral conductor called Lydia Tár, the music director of what is clearly intended to be the Berlin Philharmonic.
In the course of the film Lydia’s career and family life fall apart as allegations mount about her bullying behaviour and the suicide of a female student whom (we infer) Lydia groomed sexually, then ruthlessly discarded.
Blanchett’s performance, which is already being tipped for an Oscar (her third, if she wins), is astonishing. Not only is she completely convincing as a conductor, a role for which she prepared meticulously by watching hours of films capturing conducting greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal, she also creates such a complex, layered character that the whole debate about the use and abuse of power by unscrupulous leaders in classical music, opera, theatre and ballet is illuminated in a wholly unexpected way.
“It’s not really a film about conducting,” Blanchett says. “It’s not even a film about the classical music world. In fact it’s very hard to pin the movie down, which is its strength. It’s a little bit like a Rorschach test: different people will read very different things into it. I really want people to see it and tell me what they think.”
OK, I’ve seen it, so what about this as an interpretation?
Early in the film there’s a scene where Lydia totally monsters a young male music student in a masterclass at what is (we presume) the famed Juilliard School in New York. She piles on the criticism to such an extent that the student starts physically shaking. For anyone with experience of life in top conservatoires or drama schools the episode will seem painfully familiar. To me, the scene looks like a damning indictment of the destructive teaching that still goes on in some world-renowned arts colleges. Blanchett, however, sees it more circumspectly.
“Yes, it’s a painful scene,” she says. “It’s like watching a car crash. Yet it’s interesting that when we look at elite sports, when we see young athletes pushing their bodies to the limit in order to become stronger and faster, we somehow understand and respect that process, whereas we don’t accept that this also has to happen in the creative arts if you want to push through the barriers. And yes, it can be a bruising experience. I have been through it myself.”
Really? Surely it would take a very brave director to tell Cate Blanchett how to act. “Oh, early on in my career I would sometimes be treated brutally by a director in the rehearsal room,” she replies. “Yet I ended up making a massive breakthrough because of it. To be frank, I wouldn’t be here now if that sort of thing hadn’t happened. It made me think, ‘I’m bigger than this, I’m stronger than this,’ and I kept going but perhaps I was able to do that because of the colour of my skin, or where I was in my career. The important thing is to be aware and respectful of these things when nurturing young talent.”
There are few symbols of power and hierarchy in the arts more potent than the podium on which a conductor stands, towering over the musicians in the orchestra. Yet Blanchett believes that in other artforms, too, people in power find symbolic ways of keeping junior colleagues in their place. “When I job-shared running the Sydney Theatre Company with Andrew [the Australian director Andrew Upton, her husband for the past 25 years] the first thing we did was remove the desk from our office. Andrew said: ‘This must not be a company in which the boss sits behind a desk’.”
Wasn’t that a bit impractical? Desks are quite useful, after all. “He did it because he understands the power of symbols,” Blanchett continues. “He realised that if young or emerging actors entered the room and saw the artistic directors sitting behind a desk they could feel intimidated, and that would be an impediment to deep and frank conversations.”
That scary masterclass scene in Tár is crucial in another way too.
It captures, in microcosm, the huge culture-war argument raging in the arts and education worlds about “decolonisation” about how much students should be taught to revere the pantheon of “dead white males” who dominate (or used to dominate) the accepted canons of music, literature and theatre. In the masterclass Lydia, who has just turned 50 and is steeped in dead-whitemale culture, is infuriated by the student’s dismissal of Beethoven as a composer worth studying. As Blanchett points out, that’s a confrontation that you might witness today in any conservatoire and drama school.
“There are student actors in London right now, at Rada and the Guildhall, refusing to study parts of the classical canon because they find the plays repugnant,”
she says. “Lydia grew up in a completely different era, so she is utterly out of step with this young student.” So is Tár also a film about “cancel culture”: people at- tempting to suppress views they don’t share? “At the moment you can’t create a film, novel or play without it being in some way about cancel culture or the repercussions of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements,” Blanchett says. “That’s the world in which we are all making work. For Lydia in this film the exultation of serving the music is all-consuming.
How she gets results, and how she behaves to other people, is of secondary importance to her. However, that’s not something that is accepted today. She is the right person to do her job, but she is living at the wrong time. Therein lies the tragedy.”
The most emotionally fraught part of the film deals with Lydia’s growing obsession with Olga, a young cellist in her or- chestra (brilliantly portrayed by a 20-yearold British-German cellist, Sophie Kauer). It’s a fixation so intense that Lydia manipulates an audition process so that Olga, rather than the orchestra’s principal cellist, ends up playing the solo part in Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
On first sight, at least, this looks like a classic case of #MeToo misconduct: a powerful conductor pulling strings to promote a young musician in return for expected sexual favours. The film even makes reference to James Levine, the real life conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, who was fired after a string of allegations about sexual misconduct with young musicians.
Yet here again the film presents the relationship in an open- ended, almost ambiguous way that leaves audiences uncertain about who is using whom. Olga is no innocent, and it’s made clear that she is quite prepared to deploy her charms to get on in the music world. And Blanchett suggests that there is a completely different way of looking at relationships between older, powerful people in the arts and young protégés.
“When I first saw Death in Venice [Visconti’s film of Thomas Mann’s novella] I thought it was about a creepy old man having designs on a young boy. In preparation for making Tár I watched it again, having not seen it for 25 years, and it was as if I was watching a completely different movie: one that was all about mortality and grief and loss. Because I was at a very different time in my own life I had gravitated towards a completely different understanding of the same story. And that’s how I view Lydia’s relationship with Olga in Tár.
To say it’s about sexual desire is reductive. It’s as much about Lydia wanting to reclaim her own youth, to identify with someone only just starting her career.
“And of course that fits in with the music Lydia is conducting. She is rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the piece in which Mahler is looking at young love through the eyes of an older person.”
It’s most unlikely that the story of Tár would have been conceived 30 or even 20 years ago. The premise that a woman conductor could rise to a position of power with a leading orchestra, especially in Germany, would have seemed unbelievable. As Blanchett points out, the advance of women to the highest positions in classical music or most artforms didn’t pick up steam until the last decade of the 20th-century.
“Not a single female was in authority in any major classical orchestra until the 1990s,” she says.
“The Vienna Philharmonic didn’t even admit women players until 1997. The situation is completely different today in all the arts. I personally don’t even think about my gender until I am confronted by it until someone reminds me to put me in my place, or tell me what is possible or appropriate.”
It’s hard to imagine even the most unreconstructed chauvinist pig having the nerve to lecture Blanchett about where a “woman’s place” is but apparently one did, and recently too.
“When we were rehearsing a scene for Tár with the Dresden Philharmonic, a male conductor came up to me and said: ‘Actually, you are quite a good conductor.’ I replied: ‘Oh, that’s nice, thank you.’ Then he went on: ‘Yes, probably better than most female conductors in real life.’ I laughed because I thought he was joking, but it turned out he wasn’t. He carried on, in such a boring, disrespectful, banal, generic, pre-digested, old-fashioned way that eventually I said: ‘I think you should stop right now.’
What comes across most powerfully in Tár is how quickly a creative artist at the pinnacle of her fame and power can suddenly find her whole life disintegrating. Again, one can find examples of that all around the arts world: people who achieved early success, then started to believe their own hype.
“It’s what happens when you become fractured from your roots,” Blanchett says. “Lydia has become so enmeshed with institutional power, so overly concerned about her legacy, that she has forgotten where she came from and who she actually is. She has embellished the story of her origin to such an extent that she has become estranged from herself.” And estranged, too, from her wife and daughter.
She ends up in Thailand conducting an orchestra that supplies the backing track to video games. It seems like the ultimate degradation, but Blanchett feels the film’s ending is actually rather optimistic.
“This is Lydia’s chance to start all over again: just her and the music, without all the baggage.”
Blanchett’s ferocious work schedule more than 70 films in 32 years, plus dozens of stage roles ranging from Hedda Gabler to Blanche Du- Bois means that she has already completed another couple of film projects since Tár. “The latest is with Warwick Thornton, a director I’ve long admired, and it’s called The New Boy,” she says. “It’s set in 1940s Australia and is about the intersection between indigenous spirituality and Christianity.”
Having immersed herself in the classical-music world so intensively with Tár, what parallels can she draw with her own artform? “Not so many with the film industry, perhaps, where there are a lot of processes involved before audiences get to see your work,” she replies, “but there are many similarities between live concerts and live theatre.
“As an actor in a stage play you are also alive to the moment, to the ensemble around you, to the audience, to how the show is being received, how it is shifting from moment to moment. And also, when you come off stage, whether you are an actor or a rock musician or an opera singer, you have that experience of being in a slightly altered state. The electrifying thrill of performing live in front of an audience has changed you somehow.”
Now that Blanchett has created such a persuasive portrayal of a conductor in a film, would she consider more projects involving music? “Oh I don’t know,” she replies. “I have so many friends who are renaissance people. They can paint, sing, dance, act. I can only do one thing! I’ve been ploughing that furrow like crazy because it’s the only furrow I’ve got.”
Tár is released on January 23
‘To say it’s about sex is reductive. It’s as much about wanting to reclaim your youth’ ‘Not a single female was in authority in any major classical orchestra until the 1990s’ ‘You can’t create a film, novel or play now without it being about cancel culture’
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