Wednesday, 30 November 2022


In the beginning of the film (fictional) composer/conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is on stage being interviewed by (actual) New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik. He talks about her accomplishments and it goes on longer than, as an audience, you feel it should, for pacing reasons – like someone should have put a stop to what Gopnik is reading – and then, before any of the power dynamics of the film are obvious yet, you see personal assistant Francesca (a criminally underused Noémie Merlant) mouthing along. Of course, every single word of praise here has been pre-prepared carefully for this woman who is building her legacy, consciously, obsessively. She’s writing a book about herself (“Tár On Tár”, of course), she’s completing her cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. She fans out famous recordings of classical music to find an inspiration for her own cover, and her instructions about the cut of her suit and the lighting are calculated and specific. This is pure curation, the manufacture of a legend at work. 

I didn’t like or enjoy this film, but I’ve also been seriously considering if maybe it is a virus – not a biological one that causes sickness, but like a technological one that corrupts programming. I didn’t read up on the film before watching it, went into it blind, and so the twists and turns until it arrived at the crux of the story took me by surprise. The way she talks about classical music after the extended praise in the introduction is passionate and moving, deeply intellectual, the kind of deep obsessive focus that can be riveting even if it’s about something that the viewer isn’t personally interested in or knows much about (although I’m sure that this film in particular attracted an audience that is knowledgeable about classical music – but that’s not me). There are other stories, where the kind of revered talent that someone like Lydia Tár has excuses social inaptitude and cruelty, like it’s a price to pay for genius (it’s not the film’s fault that I’m tired of that excuse, and that I’d rather see artistic cooperation on screen, something beautiful being built by a group of people who approach their art with love), and sure enough, soon we see how Tár treats Francesca (like furniture, like someone to be used, like someone who is constantly taunted by the promise of a greater career beyond being a personal assistant but already knows too much to ever be allowed to stick around), and how she manages her partner, played by the great Nina Hoss (one of my hopes for this film is that it makes people watch all the films she’s made with Christian Petzold), stealing her beta blockers for her own use and then gaslighting her about it casually as she returns to their shared apartment in Berlin. And that apartment! Modern, concrete, filled with the aesthetic signifiers of the kind of edifying artistic life they both lead. There’s endless bookshelves and a high end stereo system. It’s the first clear moment where we see how Tár doesn’t just cultivate her professional career, but her personal life as well. Later, Sharon will tell her that the only authentic, non-transactional relationship Tár has is with her daughter. 

Before she returns to her life in Berlin with Sharon and their adopted daughter Petra, she teaches a conducting class to a student at Juilliard that ends in a debate about how to approach the work of an artist if they were problematic (don’t look up Cate Blanchett’s filmography). The student, saying he doesn’t really know what to do with Bach (or really, the whole straight cis white canon), is doomed from the start: if the introduction hasn’t made it clear, Tár is in a position of power. She argues passionately at first, weirdly (so fucking weirdly) throwing out that she, as a U-haul lesbian (what), finds that the music itself is inescapable in its beauty, regardless of the artist behind it. And then, inevitably, she becomes cruel, and after the film ends the scene makes more sense, because it’s clear that the question of what to do with the works of a problematic artist is an existential one for her – building a legacy is the project she’s currently engaged in, but something else is closing in on her. 

There is a woman about whose emails Tár and Francesca keep talking about. Francesca claims she deleted them, but then Tár gets to her computer to check, and realises she hasn’t. They’re increasingly pleading and desperate. Tár then composes messages to every single institution that could employ that woman to blackball her – and remember, she is in a position of power. She leads the Berlin Philharmonic. She is destroying a career her, and considering the amount of hours that would have gone into building that career, an entire existence. Soon after, she learns that the young woman has killed herself. 

All of this happens alongside Tár beginning to obsess over a young cellist (played by musician and actress Sophie Kauer), and ridding herself of Francesca after telling her that the position she has been hoping for will be filled by someone more qualified. It’s hubris, considering what Francesca knows, the kind of miscalculation that could only happen to someone who feels so safe that she doesn’t even consider anymore that any of her actions could have consequences. Just as she is beginning to cultivate her new relationship – in one of my only favourite scenes of the film, they have their first meeting in a famed restaurant where legends have lunched for centuries, and Tár talk about how the only vegetarian meal there is the cucumber salad, only to watch the woman opposite her order and then dig into the meatiest dishes (while Tár delicately picks at her cucumber slices), defying any preconceptions Tár has of her and hinting she won’t fall in line like others have – the walls close in. She is asked to give a statement about the death of her former students. The emails she asked Francesca to delete have been forwarded by the woman who in her few scenes appeared to be fuming behind her serious exterior, and they reveal a pattern of abuse. 

There’s an abyss at the centre of the film, a kind of spiritual emptiness – like I had this expectation that the core of this film would be the passion someone must have to dedicate their entire life to music, and instead Lydia Tár herself, in all of her cultivation, appears to be empty behind the mask she wears. This could be riveting, but instead it just feels deeply unsatisfying. It reminds me of Haneke’s adaptation of the Elfriede Jelinek novel Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher), where the emptiness is deliberate (making the film harrowingly bleak, like most of Haneke’s). There is a compelling sense of doom here, with the outside world closing in more and more on the woman at the centre of the story, disturbing every moment of peace (a doorbell keeps going off in the old Altbau apartment she has kept, the misery of others reminding her that her control does not extend far enough to keep it out). The press hunts her, protestors meet her. Any idea of building a lasting legacy is destroyed, because the very thing she so passionately argues about with the student back in Juilliard has now occurred – the artist is not separate from the work. Todd Field is telling the story of a woman who succeeded in a field so dominated by men, a story that never centres the experience of the other women she has made suffer (I don’t think there’s a question about the allegations being true, only a question of whose perspective the film prioritises – we have to extrapolate from her treatment of Francesca, and what she attempts with Olga). The lesbian predator is such a horrible, damaging cliché, and to set one free in a world that I’m sure has harboured countless straight male ones seems like a deliberately cynical choice. 

In the end, the film reveals just how much of Tár’s personal life has been part of the mask. She comes from a sad, dilapidated home in the States (even the accent, it turns out, is an affectation). Lydia Tár is not her real name. She ends up somewhere in Asia, which the film implies is horrible, because it is far from the fabled European concert halls she values. Instead of Mahler, she now conducts video game music in front of an audience of cosplaying gamers, which in a world in which the main currency is the prestige of the classics, means she’s hit rock-bottom. 

2022, directed by Todd Field, starring Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Mila Bogojevic, Sophie Kauer. 

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