Virginia Woolf said that Middlemarch was the only English novel written for grown-ups. She meant, I suppose, that Middlemarch had depth, complexity, seriousness and characters with underlying psychology; not that Wuthering Heights was likely to go down well with the under-twelves. I am slightly concerned that at the ripe old age of over 35 I found myself happy to skip Avatar but very keen to not to miss Tar.

Tar was certainly a movie for grown-ups. It was about serious classical music. It eschewed special-magic-of-cinema speeches about why Music Matteres, but it swept us along with the belief that a new recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony was a Very Big Deal. We saw rehearsals and auditions and performances and we saw the jockeying for power that goes on behind the stage of a major orchestra.
It straddled the real and the fictional to disconcertingly post-modern degrees. The fictional Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is conducting the real Berlin Philharmonic on the real Deutsche Grammophon label and was mentored by the definitely real Leonard Bernstein. The opening scene of the movie is a full length press conference in which a real journalist named Adam Gopnik (played by himself) interviews Lydia. She is said to have commissioned new work by the real Hildur Guðnadóttir who, naturally composed the score of the film. The photo cover we see being commissioned in the movie is on the cover of Deutsche Grammaphon's actual soundtrack album for the film.

I sometimes frivolously complain that actors in films and on the stage Act At Me with a capital A; and that I sometimes wish there could be Less Acting. Cate Blanchett is at the opposite extreme: even in the most dramatic scenes. She acts Not Acting. Some of the scenes may be improvised. We frequently feel that we are eavesdropping or overhearing meetings in restaurants and hotels and tea shops. But there is no attempt to code the film as a documentary. It's a movie. In places, I thought there was a wiff of the Three Colours trilogy about it.

The plot is complicated, psychological, and subtle -- significant events keep taking place off stage, leaving us not quite sure if we have at every point completely grokked what is going on. Lydia has made it to the very, very top in the once male dominated world of classical music -- her name is enough to sell a book ("Tar On Tar"), and she's an EGOT award winner. She not unnaturally thinks that the sexism dragon is largely slain. She's also gay, with a partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss) and a school age daughter Petra; they seem to have a good relationship and she's kind to the little girl. But gradually the cracks begin to show. She takes a bullying stance towards a student at a masterclass, who doesn't approve of Bach because of his misogyny. Lydia's points about the separation of art and artist are well taken; and the student is perhaps too much of a caricature millennial twerp, but it's not a nice thing to do. It is nice that she sticks up for Petra when she is bullied at school, but the stance she adopts towards the eight-year old tormentor is threatening and borderline abusive. ("And don't tell any grown ups that I've talked to you, or I will come and Get You.") She seems to be inappropriately close to Olga, the new young Russian cellist (Sophie Kauer), and twists the audition procedure to get her the best parts. It transpires, almost in passing, that a previous pupil, Krista, has made sexual allegations against her; and part way through the movie, we learn that Krista (who we never see) has committed suicide. Lydia is blamed. Mobs of young people with placards appear outside her book launch; a doctored video of the lecture appears on the inter webs.

Quite a big is ambiguous; I think because of the density and relatively large cast of characters, not due to deliberate obscurity. Lydia's PA, Francesca (Noémie Merlant) has retained copies of the dead pupil's emails against Lydia's instructions, and ends up walking out on her. Was there a plot to expose her, and who was part of it? The new cellist Olga is implied to have known the dead girl: was she a plant or does everyone in the world of classical cello know everyone else? Was Olga really living in a squat in a fallen down bomb-site, or was this some kind of trap to incriminate Lydia? How much of what we see is abuse and bullying, and how much the kind of political game you have to play to get to the top of an elite profession? We don't see Lydia being fired from the Mahler recording; we only see her disrupting the new conductor's performance. We see a quarrel, but have to infer that Sharon, her partner has left.

The final act is unexpected to the point of being surreal; the final seconds seem almost like the punchline to a black joke. (Some watchers saw more humour in the film than I did.) There is a central cleverness, I think, with She Said and Women Talking showing on other screens, to make a movie about a powerful, conflicted but apparently abusive female. A similar story about a male conductor would have had to grind different axes: it would be very hard to both see him for what he was and sympathise with him at the same time. Inevitably, some people feel that the depiction of a Bad, or at any rate Not Entirely Good woman is, if not actively misogynistic, Not Necessarily What The World Needs Right Now.

What I really need is to see this movie again. And then read Middlemarch again, come to that. But none is probably the right number of times to have seen Avatar.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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