The international world of classical music seen through the preparations of a famous conductor to record Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 may seem like a rarefied subject, strictly reserved for nerd aficionados. But Warehouse is a compelling character study, its fine detail extending with needle-punching precision into the dark recesses between its slanting scenes. The main topic of discussion will be Cate BlanchettThe amazing performance of – flint, self-controlling and very slowly breaking under pressure. But no less notable is the return of the writer-director Todd Field with a major forensic work, 16 years after his last feature film.
Opening on October 7 after the Venice, Telluride and New York Fall Festival trifecta, the Focus characteristics release is an intimate portrait of an artist possessed by her work, an exploration of the transportive vitality of great music and a lucid reflection on cancel culture. While there are likely to be some impassioned comments questioning a presumed straight man’s right to tell the story of a queer woman embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, this is of a film whose audacity, artistry and searing authority will sweep away many such concerns. next to.
Any criticism that addresses Warehouse in depth must address these plot points, but in truth, this is a film that benefits from knowing as little as possible in advance. That said, the hints of the difficulties Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, is headed for and the reckless behavior that got her there are present almost from the start. And being aware of where this is happening in no way lessens the harrowing impact of his fall from grace.
An actor-turned-director, Field became a talented filmmaker in 2001 with his feature debut, the devastating chamber study in bereavement, In the bedroomestablishing a knack for probing psychology and for extracting searing performances from its cast that continued in its acerbic investigation of middle-class suburbia, Small children. But his long-awaited third feature is something else entirely – a significant leap in maturity, control and confidence that takes risks at every step. Plus, they always pay off in a piercing film unlike any other.
We first watch as Lydia waits backstage, dressed in an elegantly androgynous black suit and crisp white shirt, her long hair pulled back from her face with chic sternness. She does breathing exercises before taking the stage in Manhattan for a New Yorker speak with writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself). This provides a quick biography of her lofty achievements in the field since becoming Leonard Bernstein’s protege, culminating with her becoming the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first female principal conductor in 2013.
Having shattered that glass ceiling while racking up accolades as a songwriter, she says she has never encountered gender bias. She speaks fondly of the radicalism and joy of Bernstein’s direction, and clearly shares that passion in her anticipation of the process of discovering repetition as she prepares to dig into the mysteries of Mahler’s intentions with Number 5.
Lydia’s time is tightly managed by her devoted assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), an aspiring conductor whom she mentored. Francesca drives her to lunch with Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), the investor behind her Accordion Leadership Fellowship, designed to provide opportunities for promising young women in the field. A minor conductor himself, Eliot begs to take a look at his scores. “Do your own thing,” Lydia told him dismissively. “There is no glory in being a robot.”
Robotic thinking is anathema to her, as she demonstrates in a Juilliard masterclass where her vaping of a student – Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who identifies as pansexual BIPOC – will come back to haunt her. When Max dismisses Bach, sensing that cis male composers aren’t their thing, Lydia explains that she’s “a U-Haul lesbian” who nevertheless refuses to compartmentalize her interests in terms of anything other than music. With tart eloquence, she dismantles the notion of ranking artist versus art, telling an offended Max, “The architect of your soul seems to be social media.” Ouch.
The spice of this encounter remains in the air even as they head to Berlin by private plane, where Lydia lives with her partner, orchestral concertmaster and concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss), and their troubled adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). Lydia still maintains her old apartment, ostensibly to work in peace but also apparently to keep one foot untethered.
Vague allusions are made to the sexual relationships Lydia had with some of the young women taken under her wing, probably including Francesca, and to Sharon’s tolerance of them, despite her own anxiety issues.
When Francesca mentions a desperate email from former fellow accordionist Krista (Sylvia Flote) begging to see Lydia, it’s clearly not the first. The developments with Krista, while initially looking like something Lydia can handle, gradually break through her painstakingly constructed veneer. The fallout, along with his special attention for talented Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer), shatters both his family life and his career. She also makes an enemy of Sebastian (Allan Corduner), the longtime assistant conductor whom she decides to “out” of the job, with Francesca among the possible candidates to take his place.
Field captures the minutiae of a very particular world, injecting excitement into Lydia and the orchestra’s progress with the Mahler and anticipation around her choice of backing piece for the recording and her soloist . “Little favours” and nagging compliments, slights and jealousies lend the plot to a film whose attention to process in a creative environment is fascinatingly detailed.
Blanchett isn’t interested in the kind of concessions that might endear us to Lydia. But she rightly demands that we respect this enigmatic and ethically flawed perfectionist, even when her handling of personal affairs is highly questionable. Likewise, the musicians revere her despite her often more autocratic tone than the democratic principles of the orchestra.
Watching her beat her limbs and whip her hair with an electric physique as she conducts (there are visual echoes of Bernstein’s flamboyant style), pausing frequently to make out every accent and tone, we see her consumed by his art, to a degree that at times seems almost sexual. We also get a sense of the pride that makes her feel uplifted by this passion, perhaps rendered untouchable. The fierce engagement of the performance is even more staggering when the end credits reveal that Blanchett – who studied German and piano for the role – did all her own acting.
The Juilliard scene in which she sits at the keyboard and guides Max through the wave of feelings that Bach can engender – conveyed by Blanchett’s ecstatic expressive features, as well as her body language – is just one of many invigorating glimpses of the classic canon’s ageless power to connect, emotionally and psychologically.
Lydia never relinquishes her pride, even when she seems broken by scandal and many of her loved ones have drifted away. But Blanchett shows the damage with a unique kind of vulnerability not to be confused with fragility. She seems aware that power has nurtured her senseless decisions by making her feel the freedom, even the right, to indulge her every whim, and to blithely cross the boundaries between the personal and the transactional. But whether she berates herself remains impenetrable. It’s a towering performance that arguably demands more of her than any screen role she’s played to date.
Blanchett has invaluable support in key supporting roles. Merlant fits more strongly than in any film since Portrait of a lady on fire. Francesca keeps her cards close to her chest, appearing almost monastic in her devotion to Lydia and perhaps more than a little in love with her. But she is also shrewd and vigilant, quietly preparing a contingency plan that may be driven by a sense of morality or resentment at her unfulfilled ambitions. Or both.
Sharon de Hoss shows the strength that helped Lydia solidify her position and the spine needed to guide them through their public outing years earlier as a high-profile lesbian couple in a male-dominated sphere. The tiny glimmers of hurt, anger or betrayal that cross his face, attentive to every nuance of his partner’s behavior, painfully indicate a relationship in which the balance of trust is uneven.
Just as Hoss brings her violin skills to the role, young cellist Sophie Kauer adds authenticity in her impressive first acting role as the rugged yet supernaturally poised Olga. In fact, throwing actual orchestra members into the ranks makes for an illuminating description of a seldom-examined artistic milieu. And having seasoned pros on hand like Corduner, Strong, and Julian Glover as Lydia’s predecessor in Berlin makes even small roles incisive.
Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister makes the film look cool and clean, deceptively simple yet often psychologically revealing in his compositions. Editor-in-chief Monika Willi makes the long run of more than two and a half hours breathe, but also flies with startling tension. And the score by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (whose name is forgotten among those whose work Tár championed) brings subtle hints of the influences Lydia hears in her own compositions, elegantly intertwined with the classical pieces – mainly Mahler and Elgar.
Warehouse marks another career high for Blanchett – many are likely to say she’s the greatest – and a fervent reason to hope it’s not yet 16 before Field gives us another feature. It is a work of genius.