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Nina Hoss and Cate Blanchett
Interview

Cate Blanchett on Tár: 'I don't think there was ever a safety net with the whole thing'

The Australian actor talks about her latest role as a controversial conductor in the Oscar-tipped Tár.

LAST UPDATE | 14 Jan 2023

IF YOU APPROACH watching Cate Blanchett’s latest film, Tár, expecting definitive answers, you won’t find any – and that’s the joy of it.

What you will find is a mesmerising performance from an actor at the top of their game: Blanchett brings to the screen a magnetic portrayal of the film’s protagonist Lydia Tár, an American conductor who lives in a rarefied world and who is about to experience a fall. 

Lydia Tár is a fictional creation from the mind of actor/director Todd Field. He is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who has a gap of 16 years between this and his previous film, Little Children (starring Kate Winslet), and just one other feature to his name, the devastating In The Bedroom (2001).

Together, Blanchett and Field make Lydia feel so real that you can understand why some audience members thought the film was a biopic of an EGOT-winning conductor. 

Tár was written specially for Blanchett, and her portrayal of such a complicated, layered, frustrating yet charismatic figure has her tipped for an Oscar. The film pushes Lydia Tár to the brink, as she gets ready to launch two major projects: a book named Tár on Tár, and a recording with the Berlin Philharmonic of Mahler’s Symphony No 5. 

It’s a high-pressure time for Lydia Tár, but it’s not like she hasn’t been around intense stress before. In fact, she seems to thrive on it – while working on these two projects she also hatches plans to despatch a colleague to another role, which she knows will upset him. And we slowly realise she’s dealing with some pretty nefarious behaviour in her personal life, behind her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss)’s back.

…Or is she? That’s the thing about Tár – you never quite know what the answer to a question will be. It wears its ambiguity proudly.

The film follows Lydia for three weeks as she wrestles with what’s going on in her personal and work life. And if all that isn’t enough, in the night time the conductor appears to be haunted by strange noises. 

No safety net

Focus Features / YouTube

If things are intense for the fictional Lydia, they must have been for the real-life Blanchett too. Several of the Australian star’s scenes (and she’s on screen nearly the entire time) are one-shot scenes, including a 10-minute sequence early on, when Lydia visits a class in Juilliard in New York City.

No doubt Blanchett’s extensive theatre work – she is a former artistic director, alongside her husband Andrew Upton, of the Sydney Theatre Company, and has tread the boards countless times – helped there. But Field himself said in an interview that his lead had ‘no safety net’ for these scenes.

The Journal caught up with Blanchett and Hoss for an interview this week. When we asked Blanchett if she felt that lack of a safety net herself, she laughed and told us:

“I don’t think there was ever a safety net with the whole thing; getting up in front of the Dresden Philharmonic and conducting those rehearsal scenes, I felt definitely in peril!” But she described it as “a dance you’re always dancing, with the camera crew, with the other actors in the scene, with the musicians in the scene, and with Todd.”

The 10-minute one-shot at Juilliard was rehearsed by Field and Blanchett a number of times before being filmed, and Blanchett described it as “much more akin to being on stage”. “We had these technical rehearsals, and then we had the performances, which were the takes, and we actually got it on the first take, it all came together,” she explained.

But their joy of nailing the take was short-lived, she revealed:

And then the camera just… it slipped and went the wrong way. And so we had to [do it again], but it was thrilling.

Initially though, she had been worried about this scene. She told us this was because Lydia has a sensitivity to people’s body movements, and misophonia (sensitivity to sounds), which both play a specific role in how she behaves in Juilliard. 

“I said to [the director], when he said he wanted to do it in one: there’s a really important component that I think you’ll lose if you do it in one,” of Lydia’s misophonia.

“This student has a bouncing knee, which is driving her crazy. And so I think [it influences] the way she’s speaking to him, but of course I said the audience is not going to get that… But because he’s the filmmaker that he is, I think you get that stuff homeopathically and perhaps if you’d cut into that scene, you wouldn’t – it would have made that stuff too front and centre.”

Indeed, that scene captures Lydia’s acute sensitivities and its impact on the students well, without drawing attention to the fact it is a one-shot wonder – quite the feat. 

‘Sharon is not naive’

The central relationship in Lydia Tár’s life is with Sharon, played by the German actress Nina Hoss – famed in particular for her long working relationship with director Christian Petzold.

The audience wonders how much Sharon knows about her wife and her behaviour. When we see Lydia acting out in front of Sharon, we watch her partner’s facial expressions as she tries to wrestle with what’s going on. Did Hoss feel as though Sharon knew the darker sides to her wife?

“I don’t want to explain too much, but what I wanted is: it’s two adults. And Sharon is not naive. She’s lived life and she has chosen a partner that is not the easiest to be with. And she has done so with open eyes,” said Hoss.

And so she can take a lot because she decides to be okay with that. But what does that mean in the long run for the relationship? And why does she do that? What does she get out of this relationship?

For Hoss, it was about exploring the pair’s relationship and what Sharon gets out of it. “I just wanted the observant Sharon to be in power of the situation and not being like… this leaf that just follows behind. Agency – she had agency.”

She understands that not every viewer might find an easy explanation to the pair’s relationship, with some feeling Sharon is a victim. “It’s complicated. [Humans] are very complicated beings, you know,” she said.

Detail

While the performances in Tár are pitch-perfect, everything surrounding them is too, from the stunning backdrop of the Berliner Philharmonie concert hall and its mid-century wooden curves, to the fancy restaurants Lydia meets her confidantes in, to the industrial loft where Lydia and Sharon live with their daughter Petra. 

Tár is so hyper-specific, so focused on being an evocative depiction of a particular milieu, that the audience can’t help but get wrapped up in the world of Lydia Tár, even as her behaviour gets more unhinged. 

There has been much discussion about the themes that Tár evokes, from cancel culture to gender parity. But it’s not a film that’s trying to be didactic; Field seems to care less about landing on a definitive answer than about exploring the character of Tár and what she might think about certain things.

That Juilliard scene, for example, ostensibly is about whether we in the 2020s should disregard art made by troubling artists. Some of Lydia’s behaviour towards the students is condescending. But what about the good points she makes too? The audience has to grapple with what they themselves make of this discussion – Tár isn’t going to lead them to an easy answer.

It also is not a film that tries to say ‘women are monsters too!’ (thankfully). Lydia Tár is in an unusual position, as female conductors are sadly a rare breed, though work is ongoing, including here in Ireland, to change that. As a result, some have argued that to place a woman who is in a minority in the role of a dangerous or misbehaving person is in its own way offensive.

Again, the film makes us think – is Lydia Tár prone to bad behaviour because she is a woman, or despite it? Is she right when she indicates, at the beginning of the film – which is structured around a public interview with Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, in a handy on-screen info dump – that she is somehow outside of gender? Yes and no, the answer seems to be.

Tár is the sort of film that leads to long, knotty conversations afterwards, to teasing out what one scene says and what another one means. In refusing to be definitive about anything other than Lydia Tár’s intelligence, talent and ability to manipulate, it gives the viewer lots to chew on. Just like a great movie should. 

Tár is in cinemas from today.

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