A profound and discombobulating meditation on the twin entities constituting the cult of fame — the star and its mirror image, the public — Todd Field‘s dark gem Tár (2022) examines the corrosive power dynamic underlying the exchange of one’s identity for mass attention, as well as the hot topic of separating art from the artist, an ancient schism currently manifesting as cancel culture. Cate Blanchett, as its protagonist, hypnotically embodies the eponymous high-voltage chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, named Lydia Tár, who is accused of sexual misconduct.

The first time I watched Tár, I was in a tiny, packed auditorium, with the heating on full blast. The air was scarce, personal space severely lacking, and the sense of foreboding, intensified. The entire experience akin to a bad case of immersive cinema.

At surface level, this is a modern-day cautionary fable, tackling the dark side of celebrity culture, and the temptation of absolute entitlement in the hierarchy of all things valued in society. A mechanism made more blatant by positioning a woman in the seat of power, traditionally reserved for men. It also sheds a somewhat jarring light on generationally contested areas of new moral sensibilities, i.e. identity politics, with Lydia out of sync with the times, shocked by what she perceives as ignorance and censorship, while, in turn, her students emphasise the importance of an artist’s biography, and their personal associations to their œuvre.

In short, it says something about the Grand Canyon that now stands between the pro- and contra- positions of what is termed “woke”.

However, Tár in truth, only dutifully charts a very old-fashioned hubris-induced fall from grace, the stuff Greek tragedy was made of. It does this with a directorial style that is layered, oblique, and complex, all the subliminal moments cleverly inserted into the texture of the narrative to keep the mythic time ticking, like a metronome — strangely dissociated visuals appearing as ghosts of the film within the film — in a parallel timeline to the one we are observing.

In the foreground we witness Lydia Tár experiencing her privileged life derail, in a single day, after an ex-protégé and ex-lover (and now, an invisible stalker) Krista (Sylvia Flote), commits suicide, and leaves an accusatory note, which, in the volatile climate of post-pandemic social media, and the already established #MeToo cultural shift, develops into a viral tsunami — outraged Julliard students joining posting forces with disgruntled employees to expose Lydia’s unsavoury professional practices. Some of which are true, and some of which are not (witness a maliciously edited video, depicting Lydia as a racist and anti-semite).

One charge that seems undeniable is Lydia Tár’s tendency of seducing and sexually exploiting up-and-coming young female artists she mentors, which, along with her myriad personal vanities, thrived within the power structure of the art world pyramid, and her sheltered position of a globally celebrated, esteemed artist.

Before the rupture in the shield happens — as if in free-fall — we follow the conductor in her rarified habitat — the power-couple marriage to a fellow musician and concertmaster Sharon — watchful, dedicated, quietly manipulative (an exquisitely fine-tuned Nina Hoss); Lydia’s self-centred, ambiguous attitude towards her ambitious, discontent assistant Francesca (a fantastically cutting Noémie Merlant); her completely unambiguous protective devotion to adopted daughter Petra (the lively Mila Bogojevic); the relaxed, adoring way she converses with her elderly mentor, Andris Davis (Julian Glover); the tense, dismissive way she interacts with her potential competitors — the fanboy and investment banker Eliot (Mark Strong), the co-founder of her Accordion Foundation supporting young woman conductors.

Finally, there is her predatory focus when in pursuit of yet another affair — this time with the playfully irreverent and talented Russian cellist Olga Metkina (a vibrant Sophie Kauer), who auditions for the Berlin Philharmonic, becoming an overnight sensation, curtesy of Tár’s desire to claim her. And cleverly managing to evade her grasp.

In absolute, majestic control until the day terra firma collapses under her, the poised, mannered, imperious Lydia unravels to the point of being unrecognisable — to herself, her environment, and to us, the audience. It was an incredible transformation to behold.

Nevertheless, exiting the auditorium I was equally taken by the experience and confused. Thinking I must have missed key points to this powerful, uncomfortable story — perhaps on purpose. Elements of Lydia’s demise seemed to have been erased from memory, as if I had suffered some sort of sudden shock to the system. I kept trying to recall all the lost pieces of the narrative puzzle, as one would do when attempting to remember a rapidly fading dream after waking, but to no avail.

What happened to the curandero thread of the tale (Lydia’s ethnographic PhD was on the Icaro song of the Shipibo-Conibo people)? Why was its hallucinatory maze-like pattern appearing in random places, including Lydia’s daughter’s toys? Was that her assistant Francesca recording Lydia without her permission? With whom was she mocking her? Lydia’s spurned ex-lover Krista? Or someone else? What exactly did Lydia do to Krista that made the latter menacingly follow her around? Except, of course, as it was disclosed, entirely ruin her blossoming career as a musician by warning all potential employers against engaging her. Still, why did Lydia discard her in the terrifying manner that she did?

Finally, and most frustratingly — whose was that haunting scream Lydia heard in the park, when she went for a run?

This was not a feeling of disappointment by the film for not giving us those answers straight — unresolved mystery is part of the appeal of cinema. It’s that I felt so disorientated during the screening that I thought that I had actually overlooked these moments while watching. That they were there, present on screen, but I hadn’t noticed them for focusing too hard on what could be followed in a linear fashion.

So, I went to watch it a second time. And only then, the architecture of the story revealed itself, and everything fell into place.

At its core, Tár is a story within a story within a story. Much like Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — it hides its intentions in cryptic visuals. And no wonder its spiritual predecessor came to me as reference — director Todd Field was part of Kubrick‘s perfectly calibrated cast. Shortly after shooting that film, Field went on to direct two acclaimed features, his debut In The Bedroom (2001), the follow-up Little Children (2006), and then seemingly disappeared from view for sixteen years, subverting the standard Hollywood trajectory. There is something about Field, also a musician, that stays elusive, and this inevitably translates to his work.

In an interview with Laurie Anderson, at the Museum Of The Moving Image, Cate Blanchett spoke of one of her favourite scenes which ended up on the cutting room floor — Lydia’s 50th birthday party. She discussed its shedding with Todd Field, and he assured her that this moment will still be felt in the film — because it is homeopathically there.

After the second viewing, I understand what he meant.

So much of Lydia’s persona had been manufactured by her own well-honed instincts for image control (including her name), then carefully curated — painstakingly, since her childhood, that it would be no wonder that entire episodes of her life would go underground, in an act of wilful denial. Edited just as elegantly as she would organise her own Wikipedia page, especially if these episodes were deemed too uncomfortable or even profoundly embarrassing to face.

On the other hand, there is no denying that the one thing Lydia did not artificially construct was her natural talent, an authentic genius, to which she only added layers upon layers of virtuosity.

In her über-strategic moves towards the top of her profession, everything had to be utilised to serve that talent, including (and especially) her personal relationships. Her partner Sharon labelled all Tár’s interactions transactional (except her love towards her daughter).

Lydia’s life had indeed been compartmentalised to a fault, something that is most palpably evident in her insistence on keeping her old Berlin apartment, a comparatively shabby place to her grand, sleek, ultramodern marital home, a space where she would be able to compose, think, seduce. A bachelorette pad, of sorts, filled with books, sofa beds, and miscellaneous past — but also beset by intrusive neighbours, and repetitive noises, ones out of her remit of control, which to a mind so attuned to sound brought both severe disturbance, as well as inspiration.

Tár is incredibly specific in both its set-ups and dynamics, and unlike most films centring on a larger-than-life personality, it does not allow the natural forcefulness of their centrifugal force deplete the cast’s energy and overshadow all other performances. In a way, this decision is the essence of what the film endeavours to say. A pyramid has a base. In an interview with the New Yorker Field reveals that this sentiment had to be disclosed at the very beginning, with all the credits rolling before the prologue, acknowledging everyone in the production before Lydia gets to speak a single word.

All of the people in her orbit are fully-formed planets, with a macro and microcosm of their own. And, as time passes, they become a much more vivid memory of watching Tár than Lydia herself, who, post-downfall morphs into a landscape of feelings, rather than a coherent person. The artifice of who she was — razed to the ground.

The finale of the film offers various options for interpretation of where Lydia is, psychologically, re-structuring her life from the ground up.

She returns to Staten Island, to her modest childhood home, and a well-hidden blue-collar background, surveying a shrine to her idol (and fantasy mentor) Leonard Bernstein in her old room — a library of VHS tapes of his educational shows for young audiences — deeply moved, reconnecting with her old self, the young girl playing an accordion, winning medals, frozen in time. We finally are allowed a glimpse of who Lydia actually is.

Then, her brother walks in, and calls her Linda.

We watch her travelling, and far, in vastly different circumstances than her private jet luxury travel days, finding herself invited to conduct an orchestra in an unspecified country in Southeast Asia. She is greeted politely and graciously, but without fanfare.

This aftermath could come off almost as a hallucinatory limbo haze, so removed its is from where the story started. Yet, there is a clear indication to where Tár is leading us towards, in its crescendo.

Dignified and dedicated, addressing the musicians with respect, as if she were standing in front of the Berlin Philharmonic again, we find Lydia directing a Monster Hunter live event concert, in front of a cosplay audience.

In a moment as comical, as it is surprising, she re-builds her world from where she first felt she was part of something greater than herself, immersed in music.

In my mind, Lydia is humbled, rather than humiliated. And that is the hardest feat to accomplish for a narcissist that she became.

Tár is so much more than meets the eye.

Author: ©Milana Vujkov

2 responses to “Tár”

  1. Once again, the most thoughtful and cogent review I’ve read yet about this film. To be sure many of the individual points have been discussed in other columns, but not all together nor in a way the connects them all. Your point about watching it twice is likewise an important one: repeat viewing may not be needed most of the time, but for some films it’s almost a requirement to fully appreciate its scope. Actually, a lot of art is like that, and certainly most classical music pieces do.

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