Greetings again from the darkness. I seriously doubt that I’ll ever skip a Cate Blanchett movie. She’s won two Oscars and has been nominated six times. She’s consistently the best part of her movies, and often the best in a full year of movies. Here she stars in the first film in 16 years from the remarkable writer-director Todd Field. His two previous films, LITTLE CHILDREN (2006) and IN THE BEDROOM (2001) combined for eight Oscar nominations, and more importantly, established Mr. Field as a rare and unique filmmaker of great depth. Having Field reappear and cast Blanchett generated a heap of excitement from this film nerd.
Ms. Blanchett stars as Lydia Tar, a piano virtuoso, the conductor of the famed Berlin Orchestra, and a true musical genius. She’s a rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) from the classical field. Her music (and her life) is a quest to uncover/discover what the composer meant with each piece. Lydia is sometimes rough on her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), but frequently dotes on their young daughter … while otherwise living a relative selfish and self-centered life. We also see this true persona in how she treats her young assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), who quietly aspires to become a conductor, while efficiently keeping Lydia on track each day.
The film begins with “New Yorker” writer Adam Gopnik interviewing Lydia as a stage presentation in front of a live audience. It’s his introduction of the Maestra where we learn her background and the proficiency that has garnered her such respect (as well as jealousy and animosity). Throughout the film, many real musicians (past and present) are referenced, and that detailed research is alone enough to earn respect for what Mr. Field has accomplished here. The stress and laser-focus on Lydia as she prepares for the final symphony in her Mahler portfolio (his 5th). We witness the meticulous detail that goes into managing the music and musicians, and this leads to handling the dismissal of veteran who is slipping, and the addition of a brilliant young cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer). We are never quite sure if Lydia’s attraction to Olga is limited to her skills with the bow.
Of course, any perfectionist at the top of their industry is subject to backlash and criticism. Is Lydia abusive? Is she exploitive? It seems the answers may be affirmative, and likely what drives her art. It’s quite discomforting to watch as she covers her tracks after the suicide of a former pupil, but I’ll admit to a certain feeling of satisfaction as she verbally spars with another student over gender semantics … actions that of course come back to bite her.
Ms. Blanchett is fascinating and mesmerizing to watch. She is at the top of her game playing a perfectionist who is at the top of her game. However, it’s clear this film isn’t likely to strike the right notes with mainstream audiences. It’s an arthouse film about art, and thus is filled with dialogue and much less actual music than you might expect for a film about a world class Orchestra conductor.
Opens in theaters on October 21, 2022