Lydia Tár Is Not an Art Monster

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Lydia Tár Is Not an Art Monster

“This is always the question that engages the listener. That’s never the answer, right?” Famed conductor Lydia Tár asks a student at Juilliard in Todd Field’s magisterial new film. According to this standard, Tar self pass: It is rife with questions between interpretations like a gymnast balanced on a beam. Critics and commentators differ not only on its meaning, but on the principles of the plot. Is Tár, played by a magnificently commanding Cate Blanchett, a sexual predator or a victim of “cancel culture”? Does she demonstrate the importance of separating art from its makers, or is her demise proof that there is in fact a close relationship between traditionalist aesthetics and reactionary politics? Is her downfall even real, or is it hallucinated? Is Tár an artist or an art monster?

What is clear enough is that Tár is a member of the cultural elect. A conductor of the esteemed Berlin Philharmonic and a celebrated composer, she is one of the lucky few lucky enough to make a decent living in the arts – and one of the even luckier few who can afford to continue in high style. She speeds through the streets of Berlin in a steel Porsche, dons a tailored wardrobe of sleek jackets, composes new music in a studio she rents solely as a workspace, and returns each night to an apartment furnished with glittering and clearly expensively furnished. .

The wife and child who greet her there sit back to her endless flurry of professional commitments. Tár has a touching relationship with her daughter, but she is mostly too busy moving from one speaking engagement to the next to spend much time with her family. When we first encounter her, she is not motherly, but struggles to project humility on stage Resident of New York Festival, where Adam Gopnik recounts her many achievements: a Ph.D. in musicology, countless awards, apprenticeship with none other than the legendary Leonard Bernstein. After that, she barely manages to squeeze in a lunch date with a colleague before being forced to present a master class at Juilliard, where she teaches the art of asking questions.

Yet Tár did not take her own judicious remarks to heart. She doesn’t ask. She claims, even pompously. Her polemic is directed at a student who declares himself too much of a “BIPOC pangender person” to appreciate Bach or Beethoven. This lackluster straw man, by far the movie’s weakest point, ends by calling Tár a bitch and storming out of the classroom. She pauses long enough to yell after him that he’s a robot before continuing her monologue. Both of them have a point, although neither seems to have learned much from their exchange. After the masterclass, Tár flies back to Berlin in a private jet. Once she arrives, she gets right back to the all-consuming business of ruthlessly succeeding—though the more she succeeds, the less time she spends making art. Perhaps she is not an art monster or an artist, but a monster of a different kind.

Back in Berlin, Tár carries out her daily routine – jogging so frantically that we wonder what (or who) she wants to chase, preparing for an important performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. the inexperienced woman probably does not deserve. At one point, Tár’s beleaguered assistant warns her that she’s received “another strange email from Krista.” We still don’t know who Krista is, much less how many strange emails she’s been sending, when the assistant breaks the news that she killed herself.

Now the pace of the film accelerates like a broken metronome beating faster and faster. Hermeneutic entanglement increases, and patterns emerge as possible clues. The documentary quality of the opening sequence, in which Gopnik plays himself, gives way to a swirling fever dream. Ominous shadows flicker at the edges of the frame, and a terrible scream rings out as Tár jogs through the park. In the abandoned apartment complex where the pretty young cellist lives, there is a growling dog so large that it seems to have escaped from another world – or is this monster a paranoid fantasy? And, for that matter, is everything else? Tár has always been sensitive to noise, and the cacophony of the city begins to gnaw at her unbearably. Even the hum of the fridge is enough to wake her up at night.

In twisted twists, we discover that Krista was a promising student in a fellowship program that Tár spearheaded. Something happened between the teacher and her pupil, and Tár sent a series of e-mails to other leading conductors warning them not to take on Krista. Perhaps Tár seduced Krista, or perhaps their relationship was consensual (though questionably asymmetrical). Perhaps their romance soured for no particular reason, or perhaps Tár maliciously dropped her protégé. Maybe Tár destroyed the ingenue’s career without cause, or maybe Krista really was as upset as Tár claimed. Maybe Tár is disgraced and fired for her alleged misconduct and arranges a really embarrassing affair with a reputation management consultant who advises her to “rebuild from the ground up…” or maybe the last third of the movie is a long nightmare.

Anyway, we watch as Tár takes refuge in an unnamed South Asian country, where she prepares to conduct again. She mounted the podium with her usual rigid dignity and turned to the musicians. Only then does the camera pan to reveal the audience – a bunch of cosplayers dressed as characters from the video game Monster Hunter. Tár conducts a video game soundtrack. On the face of it, her humiliation seems to be complete.

Tar teems with questions, and it is surely abundant enough to support the many varied answers that critics have proposed. Field’s film is about mortality, generational conflict and guilt that prowls around like a predator, but it is at least as much about how an artist can be swallowed up by her own image – until she is no longer an artist at all.

“You have to sublimate yourself, your ego and, yes, your identity. You have to actually stand before the public and God and wipe it out yourself, Tár declares quite grandiosely in her master class. She is right, but again she is not following her own advice. Instead of erasing herself, she poses for photo shoots and writes a memoir called Tár on Tár.

Want to be Tár Tár on Táror is she forced to be Tár on Tár based on her position? There’s no doubt that she enjoys tormenting her students and bullying her subordinates, and in fact, her magnetic aura is what makes her so mesmerizing (if difficult) to watch. But fatigue and regret soften her ice-cold mien when she dutifully quotes quotable syllables at the Resident of New York Festival, talking to her assistant about recording an upcoming gig, looking up her own name on Twitter – in short, doing everything but making music or listening to music.

Tár may be compulsively drawn to what she knows in her core to be the superficiality of a role that can only be justified by music itself, but at least she shrinks from her own indulgences. Many times she retreats to her studio to compose, but on each occasion she is interrupted and gives up. In over two and a half hours of footage, she never listens to music for the sheer joy of it. The one time she puts on a jazz record at home, she intends to calm her panicked wife, whose anxiety pills she stole.

Blanchett’s performance is the most important of the many aspects of Field’s film that divided audiences. Is it gripping? Is it affected? I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Tár’s crisis, but a writer I admired told me that he found the actress almost sickeningly fake. It’s true that Blanchett’s gestures are conspicuously considered and her tone laden with self-importance, yet falsity befits a figure so utterly hollowed out in an advertisement for herself. After Tár’s shame, we learn that she comes from humble origins and that her patrician mannerisms are in fact one component of the crumbling facade she has cultivated so strenuously for so long. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Linda Tarr, a working-class girl from Staten Island who watched Bernstein lectures on VHS, that Tár hopes to escape on her jogs. Even the name she adopts as an indication of sophistication is a grotesque anagrammatic distortion of the word art.

So the end of the film can be perversely redemptive. Finally, fate gives Tár the chance to destroy herself in the service of her art. The cynical reading of her surprising new project is that she is doing just what the sleazy reputation management consultant encouraged her to do – to rebuild from the ground up. But Tár takes her responsibilities more seriously than she needs to if they are simply a means to reputation resurrection. She is as deadly serious about her new assignment as she once was about Mahler’s fifth – if not more so, because now she has nothing else to be dead serious about. For the first time we see how she works. Instead of flitting from distraction to distraction, she searches music libraries for the composer’s score, and when she finds it, she crouches over it in a restaurant with a pen, her face furrowed with concentration. “Let’s talk about the composer’s intention with this piece,” she says to her orchestra during rehearsal. When the prestige and social rewards are stripped away, the only thing left is the music itself — and even a sentimental and bombastic soundtrack is infinitely preferable to silence.

Despite the pomposity of her self-presentation, Tár has long been less of an art monster than a reputation management monster. The question that “engages” the film’s audience, as Tár herself would put it, is whether it is too late for her to become a different and more dangerous animal. Perhaps she is as surprised as I am to find that she is finally confronting what little is left to her with dignity – that she is, at least briefly, proving herself to be an artist after all.

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