Last week I thought Michelle Williams was unbeatable for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but after watching Tár, it’s hard to see Cate Blanchett coming second. Todd Field’s film about a musical genius who falls for the seductions of fame and power, is a classic Faustian tale. Blanchett’s Lydia Tár doesn’t exactly sell her soul to the devil, but she shows us that talent is one thing, morality another.
Tár is a long film, and almost perverse in its structure. It begins with an extended, on-stage discussion between Adam Gopnik, a real-life New York public intellectual, and musician Lydia Tár, who has capped a stellar career by being appointed the first-ever female chief conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, following in the footsteps of giants such as Furtwängler and Karajan. Both those men were controversial figures, but as Norman Lebrecht has expounded at length in his book, The Maestro Myth, conductors seem to be uniquely prone to scandal and megalomania.
At first acquaintance this woman is the exception to the rule. The on-stage interview informs us that Lydia Tár is a musical prodigy and protegé of Leonard Bernstein. She has won all the awards, both as a conductor and a composer, having worked for the concert hall, and for stage and screen. She spent years in Peru, engaged in an ethnomusicology project with an Indian tribe, and is now recording a Mahler symphony cycle, with only the Fifth still extant. She is a lesbian and a feminist, who has started a foundation to assist promising young female conductors.
Too good to be true? A cultural icon and celebrity, Lydia is supremely self-confident. We watch as she takes a masterclass at the Juilliard school, destroying the pretentions of a student who says he doesn’t like Bach because he was an old, white, cis male with 20 children. It’s clear her commitment is to quality, not identity.
In Berlin, Lydia shares a luxurious apartment with her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also first violin with the orchestra. They have an adopted daughter, Petra, who has just begun school. As details slowly accumulate, we form a picture of an extraordinary personality, fiercely intelligent, hard-working, a natural leader.
To this point the film is more like a documentary or a personal profile. We become gradually aware of the micropolitics of the orchestra, the conflicting personalities and tensions the conductor must hold in check. It’s only when we learn of the suicide of a young woman named Krista Taylor, who was once a trainee conductor in Lydia’s program, that the first tinkle of bones is heard in a distant closet. Krista’s death is especially upsetting to Lydia’s assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), her closest confidante, after Sharon. In the off-hand way she treats Francesca, we see the selfishness of the would-be genius.
Lydia has a very different response to Olga (Sophie Kaur), a young Russian cellist who auditions to join the orchestra. From the first glance, it seems she wants to eat up this new recruit. Fresh talent is also fresh meat. This lustful weakness, and her willingness to use her power and prestige to advance a sexual agenda, will be Lydia’s downfall. We realise that Krista Taylor was another of her conquests, but one that ended badly.
Once Lydia’s downfall has begun it gathers an unstoppable momentum, leading to an ending that feels like a fevered hallucination in the conductor’s mind. Like most scenes in this movie, it repays the closest scrutiny.
In his first feature since Little Children (2006), Todd Field has created a script and mise-en-scène of great depth and complexity. I don’t use the word ‘masterpiece’ lightly, but Tár is a towering achievement. When I think of all the aspects worthy of discussion, it would require a very long review to do the story justice. It is not simply a study of the corruptions of fame and power, it makes acute observations about the world of classical music and the hysterical rise of cancel culture. The composers who are mentioned are all genuine, and Blanchett gives the impression she could really step up and conduct an orchestra. There’s a subtext about Mahler that perhaps only dedicated Mahlerians might fully appreciate. It’s rare for a mainstream film to delve into such subjects.
Tár has been criticised for its sexual politics, with one female conductor calling it “anti-woman”, but this is the kind of attack that only draws attention to the film’s strengths. Had it been a male conductor, the story would have been a cliché. Had it been a celebration of female power, it would have been no less superficial. The flaws in Lydia’s larger-than-life persona, are those points at which the character comes alive. Field has taken the ‘Maestro myth’ that portrays the conductor as a kind of hyper-male and shown that the same issues may apply to a woman. Táris a universal fable about power applied to a specifically gendered case, about the way it corrodes our ideals and fantasies. It’s a timely reminder that those superheroes we put on pedestals are human, all too human.
By now you’ve probably heard a lot of discouraging reports about Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. I thought, optimistically, that when a film is so roundly thrashed it may turn out to be a misunderstood masterwork, like The Night of the Hunter (1955), which spelled the beginning and end of Charles Laughton’s career as a director. It bombed with the critics and at the box office but is now considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
One suspects this won’t be the fate of Babylon, which is more likely to be remembered as one of the most expensive trainwrecks in cinema history. Or rather it’s a pile-up, in which new crashes keep appearing over the course of three solid hours, until one leaves the cinema feeling vaguely astonished. Surely there came a point in this extravaganza when the director, the producers, the actors, and the people who did the catering, began to feel it had all gone wrong. By that stage it must have been too late to turn back, so the only option was to go into denial.
Alarm bells should have been ringing during the first reading of the script. I’m not especially worried by foul language or adult concepts, but the sheer vulgarity of the dialogue would make Merv Hughes wince. Even worse, there are numerous scenes, starting with a man being drenched in elephant shit, in which the visuals are a perfect match for the words.
Perhaps the characters were never intended to be sympathetic in a story Chazelle has described as a “poison pen letter to Hollywood”, but they have less depth than a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The stories of each of the central characters are variations on the rags-to-riches-to-rags theme we see every time Hollywood makes a movie about itself, either in celebration or self-hatred.
The film is set in the late 1920s-early 1930s, when the industry is working through its traumatic transition to sound. We begin with a massive party at the hilltop mansion of studio mogul, Don Wallach. This vision of excess continues for ages, growing ever wilder and louder, all naked, writhing bodies, dance music and mountains of cocaine. In a back room a deranged fat man is making love to a starlet who overdoses and goes into a coma. It is, presumably, a nod towards the famous case in which comedian, Fatty Arbuckle, was accused of raping a young actress who died at a party.
At this bacchanal we will meet all the lead characters: Manny (Diego Calva), a Mexican émigré who begins as an assistant but will work his way up the Hollywood food chain until he becomes a creative director at a big studio. His progress is due to his quck wits and initiative, plus the odd lucky break. One such break is his connection with Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the box office king of the silent era, a high-functioning alcoholic who has risen through the ranks, going through wives at the same rate that he polishes off bottles of Scotch.
Manny’s downfall arrives in the form of an uninvited party guest who nonetheless steals the show. Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy is an aspiring actress who already considers herself a star. Loud, brash and barely dressed, she speaks in an atrocious New Jersey accent, and seems ready to dance until dawn. She is ‘discovered’ at the party as a last-minute replacement for the girl who has passed out in the back room and will make the most of her opportunities.
The other characters we meet at the party who will go on to taste Hollywood’s highs and lows, are African-American trumpeter, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a beneficiary of the new technology that makes jazz accessible to a mass audience; and Chinese actress, Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), whose exotic appeal will not be enough to save her career.
These characters are all drawn from real people, or combinations of real people. Jack Conrad is loosely based on John Gilbert, a big star who struggled to make the transition to sound, while Nellie LaRoy is modelled on Clara Bow, the legendary ‘It girl’, known for a horror childhood and her sexual licence. Fay Zhu is obviously a portrait of Anna May Wong. Manny and Sidney are less identifiable, but still modelled from life.
They are willing victims of a system that propells them to the heights and brings them down just as speedily. Their destinies are rocket-boosted by the transition to the talkies, which allows Manny his big break at the same time that it puts Jack’s career on the skids. For Nellie, sound means overcoming her accent and her past, shaping up for a future she is ill-equipped to endure.
Chazelle shows us how the great machine that is Hollywood will democratically enlist anyone who can advance its interests, taking them from the gutter to the heights of stardom. But the thrill of celebrity is short-lived, and the illusion Jack holds dear, that movies are art for the common people, is exposed as a lie. The movies are big business that makes fortunes for rich investors while exploiting whatever talent is available.
This is Chazelle’s insight, but it’s pretty much the same insight as every other Hollywood film about Hollywood, as we witness the human toll of screen stardom. What he lacks in originality or profundity, the director seeks to achieve through sheer excess. He concentrates on the personalities to the exclusion of the political and historical context, which was cataclysmic in those years, including a little blip called the Great Depression. The turmoil of the times is channelled through Manny and Jack and Nellie and Sidney and Fay.
Threaded through Babylon is one of Chazelle’s personal obsessions: Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The famous musical, which also charts the transition from the silents to the talkies, makes an improbable early appearance when Jack has to stand and sing in a bobbing chorus. It returns at the end when a tearful Manny watches the entire history of Hollywood flash before his eyes, in a montage that feels like a desperate, stagey way of redeeming a story that has dug itself into the darkest of holes.
It’s a futile effort, because the previous three hours has painted a picture of such savagery it’s impossible to suddenly switch to a nostalgic appreciation of the magic of the movies. If this film is an embarrassment to all concerned, it’s an embarrassment on a grand scale, with the most staggering ambitions. Perhaps the most positive thing I can say is that it is never boring. Although some scenes can be hard to take, I found myself watching Babylon with a kind of wrapt attention, wondering what depths were yet to be plumbed. We may be horrified by the spectacle of the Hindenburg going down in flames, but it’s hard to tear our eyes away.
Written & directed by Todd Field
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Mark Strong, Julian Glover, Alan Corduner, Adam Gopnik, Mila Bogojevic, Fabian Dirr
USA, M, 158 mins
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart, Lukas Haas, Rory Scovel, Olivia Hamilton, Katherine Waterston, Samara Weaving, Toby Maguire, Max Mingella, Phoebe Tonkin
USA, MA 15 +, 189 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 January, 2023