You don’t have to be a method actor to play “in awe of Cate Blanchett.” Practically anyone watching her virtuosic performance in “TÁR” would agree, and her supporting co-star Noémie Merlant is chief among them. The difference is that Merlant had a front row seat to a portrayal she says “destroyed [her] in a lot of ways.” She could easily channel the sense of wonder instilled by Blanchett’s masterful performance into her own more subtle but equally as compelling one. Though Blanchett is the undeniable frontrunner this awards season, her young co-star also deserves recognition.
For the already impressive French actress, a rising star since her lustrous breakout in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the role was the perfect fusion of life and art.
“I tried to feed my character with something true. I was in the audience observing Cate in the process of creation of her role, embodying her character,” Merlant told IndieWire in a recent interview. “At the same time, since I’m a huge, huge admirer of Cate, I used this feeling for Francesca who was observing Lydia in the process of creation. I was really doing the parallel between Noémie and Francesca, with the same feeling of admiration and observation.”
As the solicitous assistant Francesca to Blanchett’s exacting maestro Lydia Tár, Merlant is an unobtrusive but steady presence in Todd Field’s 168-minute masterpiece. She dotes, observes, and attends to Lydia’s every whim and need — both professional and personal. In a film about power dynamics, one of the greatest sleights of hand is in what isn’t shown: Every one of Lydia’s alleged transgressions, power plays, and inappropriate affairs are only alluded to. In a way, this obfuscating storytelling is Field’s own kind of power play.
It also leaves every one of Lydia’s relationships, which are inevitably revealed to be transactional and one-sided, dripping with subtext and unspoken history. Though it’s never explained outright, that naturally includes a past affair between Lydia and Francesca. For devoted actors who love to dream up elaborate backstories for their characters, this setup was a dream.
Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection
“There are a lot of things that we don’t really see in the movie that are just shadows,” said Merlant. “We spoke about the relation between Lydia Tár and Francesca in the past, the fact that I’m really still in love with Lydia. We had to feel it in my gaze, in the way I look at her, the way I touch her, some kind of old intimacy. There are some moments when I take her hand and I almost kiss her hand or in the car just when I touch the feet. Even we don’t know, it’s Francesca, but me when I play, I know it’s me.”
“TÁR’ leaves everything up to interpretation, both for the actors and the engaged viewer. Whether or not one sees Lydia and Francesca’s relationship as an abuse of a certain power dynamic, the film never casts judgement on its central character. For Merlant, the open-ended provocations are what drew her most to the project.
“It’s not a movie with answers, it’s a movie with kind of a lot of mystery and a lot of questions. [It’s] really important about the dynamics of power, about the relation between humans, about the process of creation,” she said. “That’s what I like in this movie: There are no heroes or villains. They’re all a little bit of everything sometimes. Yeah, sometimes she loves her and sometimes she just wants to be her. We want you to play a little bit also in her gaze or in her behavior with this thing that she wants to be her.”
One question that she continues to wrestle with is what is gained by making the central character — an ambitious narcissist who embodies so many stereotypically masculine qualities — a woman.
“I think if it would’ve been a man, maybe I would not have asked myself so many questions. I would’ve said, ‘Oh yes, we know about this,'” she said. “Also what is interesting is to have representation of a woman with power. I think it’s important to see a world with women with power. It’s also important to notice that…in a world like classical music, it’s a really patriarchal environment with rules that Lydia had to go through. It’s not the same if she would’ve been a man. … It’s interesting for representation first, and also because there is this distance that we could go further on these questions of power.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
As a French woman, Merlant is no stranger to patriarchal systems of power, in particular how sexism and misogyny infiltrate the cultural sphere. As “TÁR” heads into awards season a clear contender, with Blanchett as the one to beat for Best Actress, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been. Merlant will compete against her co-star Nina Hoss for Gotham Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance. She will have an overdue awards season run, but many will still remember the one that should have been. One of the greatest Oscar snubs in recent memory was when France infamously did not submit “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” for Best International Feature contention.
“I think they have this issue with queer films or really feminist films or really… I don’t know. I’m still wondering,” Merlant said. “I think it’s a mistake because I think it would have been a great addition to the Oscars because it would’ve been an amazing visibility and a visibility for love and respect and we need that so much, not only in France, but all over the world and the cinema and film like that of this power. … I like that this movie showed love and not violence, for example. … It’s true that we were sad for the movie, not for us, but for what the movie shared.”