VÉRN ON TÁR
By now if you’re the type of person who would see TÁR but hasn’t seen TÁR you’ve probly already heard that TÁR is good and you don’t need me to sell you on it. It is indeed a great acting vehicle for Cate Blanchett (HANNA), a really smart and thought-provoking character study, and just an all around engrossing, original cinematic experience that doesn’t fit any of the templates of the kind of stuff I normally watch, and is all the more captivating for it. So I would encourage you to go through with it.
It’s written and directed by Todd Field, who we of course know mainly as the actor who played Nick Nightingale in EYES WIDE SHUT, and he was also in EYE OF THE EAGLE 2: INSIDE THE ENEMY, BACK TO BACK, TWISTER and THE HAUNTING. He suddenly became an acclaimed filmmaker with IN THE BEDROOM in 2001, then LITTLE CHILDREN in 2006, and then he disappeared into a puff of smoke until finally returning last year holding TÁR above his head like baby Simba.
Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, famous and respected classical composer and conductor, introduced to viewers as well as a live New Yorker Festival audience within the movie with a torturously long list of credits and achievements. She’s giving a faux-humble-but-clearly-very-impressed-with-herself Q&A, saying all her clever lines and opinions, explaining her interpretations of the meanings of famous musical works, brushing off being the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and being called “maestro” and not “maestra.” The audience loves her. She says she’s experienced no gender bias. Maybe just no other woman in history was ever qualified until her. That must be what it was.
She used to help young women get into the industry, but thinks it’s not needed anymore. Talks to Eliot (Mark Strong, BABYLON A.D.), the banker who runs her fellowship program, about opening it up to men. Her personal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE) seems very on top of things, on track to advance into conducting, and possibly annoyed with Lydia’s shit, but she puts up with it.
Lydia’s wife Sharon (Nina Hoss, PHOENIX) doesn’t see her at home enough, but she’s in the symphony as a player and concertmaster. They live in an enormous, modern flat with concrete floors, many book shelves, and a daughter named Petra (Mila Bogojevic). When Petra is scared and can’t sleep she likes for Lydia to hold onto her foot, and when you see her do that you can’t help but like her, at least in that moment. But she seems to be traveling or staying at her other place more than not. Petra calls her Lydia.
I don’t know if it’s a regular gig or a special event, but Lydia teaches a class at Juilliard. It’s a long, stressful sequence that’s almost like a short film or a play on its own. A student named Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) is going to conduct a piece he chose from a contemporary composer, but Lydia stops him and has him sit back down and asks him leading questions to illustrate some points about the inferiority of modern music. The waiting musicians and the rest of the mostly-POC class watch blankly, we’re unsure how they feel about it, but Lydia sure feels proud of her little jokes and digs at Max and these kids today, smiling wryly like she expects the crowd who loved her at the New Yorker Festival to be hiding in the back somewhere, eating this up. I don’t think she grasps at first that these kids aren’t impressed with her shtick or that Max is politely holding his tongue because he’d rather not get into this shit. She turns to the topic of identity politics, that dreaded boogeyman of self-styled intellectual rebels like herself, after she corners Max into admitting he’s “not really into Bach” because he considers him a misogynist.
Not that I’m qualified to opine here, but I don’t disagree with Lydia. Obviously Bach and Beethoven did create amazing music, and whether or not she should be pushing them over the atonal modern composers the students prefer, it’s very reasonable to encourage the students to learn from their compositions. That’s not wrong. Her mistake is that she’s just an arrogant fucking asshole! I couldn’t stop watching Max’s knee bounce nervously for minutes straight, like a kettle whistle warning of the scene’s overflowing tension. Lydia ignores it until, sitting next to him at the piano, she suddenly pushes down on his knee, forcing him to stop. Soon he resignedly calls her a bitch and leaves. She calls him a robot, which seems to be her favorite insult, and reminds me of being a 13 year old getting into punk rock and feeling superior to kids who liked top 40.
I really think if she had listened to Max and not sounded so condescending and backhanded when she said “maybe there is some merit to examining Max’s allergy,” she could’ve explained why she felt the way she did about it and maybe even gotten through to him. But it’s not important to her to get through to him, it’s only important to belittle him and complain about you kids today and your political correctness. She had to take on the persona of the establishment, looking down its nose and scoffing at him for questioning the sanctity of a canon he obviously feels people like him were excluded from having a say in, let alone being included in. Of course she succeeded at her goal of making him leave the class and failed at the teacher’s goal of teaching, or the human’s goal of not being a dick.
There’s so much truth to that scene. It’s an illustration of all these campus controversies we hear about as if they’re anything more than a natural side effect of young people pushing back at the previous generation’s status quo as they’re first coming into their own and being inundated with new concepts. But I think it applies to many other interactions. This woman who is clearly very talented, intelligent and accomplished has so much to share with these young people, and instead she decides to leave an impression of being a dummy. People just can’t help themselves. We see it so often now, successful, sometimes brilliant artists, who have created great things and have so many great insights, but also some topics where they’re just absolute dipshits. And they hit on that topic and it’s the first time somebody tells them hey man, you’re being a dipshit there, and they figure they can’t be wrong, it must be everybody else who’s a dipshit, so that becomes their favorite topic for now on. Many people seem to spiral toward being a grumpy caveman if they live long enough. They could keep learning but they decide not to. Lydia decides not to.
Her other problem with young people is specifically with young women. There seem to be a trail of them who she got interested in and did favors for but then lost interest and moved on to another one. We keep hearing about one named Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), the only one whose career never advanced after the fellowship, because Lydia said she “had problems” and was “unstable.” Now she’s sending distraught emails, seems to be a scandal bomb waiting to explode.
Meanwhile, Lydia meets a young Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer, a real cellist, as you can tell when they show her playing), her eyes practically pop out of her head like a cartoon wolf, and suddenly all her opinions about how the symphony should proceed conveniently change to open a path for a brand new cellist to take the spotlight. I love the looks of disgust on everybody’s faces – including her wife – as she signals what she’s up to. Not to equate Lydia’s misconduct to Humbert Humbert’s, but to me there’s a LOLITA-esque dry humor to the way she seems to think nobody notices this shit. I don’t think she’s flaunting her power to get away with it. I think she really believes she’s being subtle. Like I said, people can be brilliant and yet stupid.
A key to understanding Lydia is in her treatment of assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner, YENTL). Throughout the movie she keeps having conversations with different people telegraphing that she wants to get rid of him. Can you believe he said such-and-such, he’s too old, he’s getting sloppy, or they need fresh blood, or whatever. When she finally goes to do the deed she visits him in his office (filled with old books and mementos so you know he’s been there for years and years) and claims not to be forcing him out, but merely suggesting he might enjoy “rotating” to a different job in a different place with a different symphony. It’s totally up to him, of course. He sees through it and angrily accuses her of pushing him aside to replace with “that girl,” and tells her they all know about her dalliances and favoritism.
Which is exactly what she wanted. At Juilliard she told Max “Don’t be so eager to be offended,” but here she baits Sebastian into offending her so she can claim she has no choice but to remove him. My favorite Lydia Tár hypocrisy is that when he calls her out she claims he’s prejudiced against marriage, an offense so obscure she has to define the word she used to accuse him of it. Despite the self righteous show she put on at Juilliard she’s not so averse to professing victimhood. We even see her literally claim to have been attacked by an unknown assailant when she actually tripped on a stair and bashed her face on the ground.
She acts like she doesn’t have a conscience, but maybe she does. There’s a slight horror aspect to the movie in her paranoia about all this catching up to her. She hears strange sounds in the night, loses things as if they were stolen, finds symbols she interprets as threats, at one point hears a woman screaming, and does try to go to her to help, but finds nothing, and it’s never explained. There’s an even weirder scene where she’s chased by a dog. It’s an unlikely combination of elements that somehow fit together perfectly.
She has very little empathy. She seems utterly disgusted by her neighbor, a woman taking care of her ailing mother, and can’t hide her terror when she’s dragged over to help lift her after a fall. Soon after she’s leaving and sees the old woman being carried down the stairs in a body bag. She makes long eye contact with the daughter but can’t muster a single word to say, and runs off.
There’s a notorious review of TÁR by a writer who assumed Lydia Tár was a real person, and reportedly that’s a fairly widespread phenomenon. I figure a biopic wouldn’t open with a giant info dump explaining all her achievements like this, but then again, a biopic would be called TÁR. Since she’s not a real person it kinda works against marketing because when I started hearing it at first I didn’t know what the hell it was. Am I supposed to know what TÁR means? And is it not pronounced TAR? But when you get to know the character and her self importance you realize it’s a good title, and near the end of the movie you find out more information that explains why it’s the perfect title. I love that – a title with more meaning than you realize at first.
This has been called a movie about so-called cancel culture, a description that’s not wrong, but doesn’t accurately convey its complexity or priorities. I don’t think it’s an issue movie, unless the issue is showing that people and their lives are complicated and hard to boil down into issues. I don’t interpret it to have a moral or an argument directly for or against the various ideas associated with the “cancel culture” topic. It just follows a character who is very talented and also very flawed, and her talent has allowed her to get away with some things, but now attitudes are changing so the jig is up. But she’s still alive and she’s still an artist so she tries to continue how she can.
I didn’t like Lydia. I didn’t hate her. I found her fascinating, and she made me laugh, the way she forces in her little references and jokes in that voice that tells you how witty and cutting she thinks they are even though at least half the time I don’t follow. (In the class when she makes an aside about Edgard Varèse saying something about Jews and then Jerry Goldsmith ripping him off in his PLANET OF THE APES score, does she honestly think one person in there knows what the fuck she’s going on about, or is she just talking to herself?) She’s both a genius and a total, empty phony. It’s a sad and deeply uncomfortable story, but it’s so good and ends on such a wry and unexpected punchline that I couldn’t help but feel invigorated by it.
In the Q&A at the beginning of the movie Lydia talks about conductors controlling the rhythm and build of a symphony, knowing exactly when and where they will end up. Later she watches a treasured VHS tape of Leonard Bernstein saying that music expresses emotions that there are no words for. If Field thought of these things as parallels to directing movies that might be pretty pretentious, but also I think a fair description of what he accomplishes here. TÁR is one of those movies where I enjoy the entire experience of watching it but have little idea where it’s going or what it’s getting at. But at the end it all accumulates into something true and funny and hard not to keep thinking about. It’s a great movie.
But not too great for a sequel. Lydia likes to keep in shape by jogging, and she even has heavy bags at her place for punching, so it’s pretty clear how TÁR TWÖ could take the character to interesting new places. (SPOILERS FOR TÁR 1.) It picks up a year or so after the first film. Lydia’s career in video game music has pretty much run dry. But a video of her punching out Elliot at the live recording recirculates and goes viral, leading to new notoriety among Gen-Zers and speculation about her fighting skills. Yes, much as the UNDISPUTED sequels switched up from boxing to mixed martial arts, TÁR TWÖ trades the world of classical music for that of illegal underground combat sports. Still in the Philippines, she tracks down an elusive master to train her in the martial art Arnis (also known as Kali or Eskrima) to prepare for a tournament, and when that’s not enough she returns to Berlin and the derelict apartments, where she faces and ultimately befriends that dog that chased her. I don’t know if she takes on any young students, I hope she behaves herself. Maybe she’s forced to have Max as her manager, a mismatched buddy movie? I’m still working on it.
If you want to read a way smarter review than mine (but with less speculation about DTV sequel possibilities) check out this Zadie Smith piece from the New York Review. My friend sent this to me and I made the mistake of reading it before I was done with mine and now I feel inadequate. Something I’d already written about the Juilliard scene is similar to a point she made much better, but I left it in because I thought it was important.