“Tár”, commented: regressive ideas to match a regressive aesthetic
Conductor James Levine was fired from the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 after being accused of sexually abusing four men – his students – including three when they were teenagers. Conductor Charles Dutoit resigned from his post with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London the same year after being accused of sexual assault by several women. (Both men have denied the charges.) In Todd Field’s film “Tár,” starring Cate Blanchett as a bandleader named Lydia Tár, the two men are mentioned, by a retired elderly orchestra, as objects of his sympathy. This peripheral character’s remark should hardly be taken for the writer and director’s perspective – except that the drama centers around the accusations of impropriety against Lydia and casts her as a victim. The film quickly moves through the charges she faces; it blurs details, weeds out narratives, only sketches hearings, leaves crucial events off-screen, and offers a calculated measure of doubt, in order to portray her accusers as unhinged and hysterical and the protesters gathered against her as frantic and goofy. . Moreover, he portrays her as the victim of another attack, based on blatant lies, but which, in the wake of the other accusations, is gaining traction in the media.
“Tár” is a regressive film that bitterly takes aim at so-called cancel culture and ridicules so-called identity politics. It presents Lydia as an artist who fails to separate her private life from her professional life, who lets her sexual desires and personal relationships influence her artistic judgment, which in turn finds itself confirmed and even enhanced by this influence. It showcases efforts to expand the world of classical music to become more inclusive, by commissioning and showcasing new music by a wider range of composers, as somewhere between a sacrificial and entirely unnecessary gesture of charity. . It pokes fun at the concept of blind auditioning (intended to prevent conductors, musicians, and administrators from making decisions based on appearance). He mocks the presumption of an orchestra to govern itself (which the one Lydia undoubtedly conducts in the film, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, does in real life). It derisively portrays a young American student named Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who identifies himself “as a BIPOC pangender” and who says he can’t take Bach seriously because he was a misogynist. The film looks at any social station and way of life in addition to stuffed money and immaculate luxury as filthy, filthy, pathetic.
Lydia’s backstory – of a sanitized, resume-like sort – is dispensed with in the film’s first long scene, a New Yorker-centric one, featuring my colleague Adam Gopnik, as himself, interviewing Lydia on stage for the New Yorker Festival. He presents it through a litany of his accomplishments: conducting positions with the great orchestras of Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and New York, training in ethnomusicology and the music of Indigenous peoples, a repertoire that involves commissioning music to women composers and performing it alongside venerable classical works, even a EGOT. As Gopnik recites her bona fides, her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who obviously compiled them, quietly syncs backstage.
Lydia is married to Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), the orchestra’s concertmaster, a relationship that began around the time of Lydia’s appointment as bandleader. They live, with their young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), in a brutalist apartment of immaculate monumentality (although Lydia keeps her old place, in an old building, to work there). Lydia is the co-founder of a mentorship program for young aspiring female conductors. Francesca, one of her former students, works tirelessly as Lydia’s factotum, amanuensis, and personal assistant, hoping to become her assistant conductor in Berlin. Another former student, Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), apparently stalks Lydia, who has meanwhile thwarted Krista’s career by dissuading orchestra administrators from hiring her. There’s the hint that Lydia had sex with Francesca and Krista, but only a hint and enough calculated blur to leave viewers debating in the lobby.
“Tár” is a helpful reminder of the connection between regressive ideas and regressive aesthetics. It’s also a helpful illustration that there’s no such thing as “the story”, no set of pre-existing events that inherently define a character’s life, rise, or fall. . This film, kicking off the action with the slightest hint that Krista is the source of trouble in heaven, does almost as well its job of erasing the details of whatever may have happened between them as Lydia herself does of erasing. Krista’s incriminating emails. . (A clue to the nature of their relationship is an anonymous gift – a signed copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel “Challenge,” based on the author’s romantic relationship with a woman who attempts suicide – which Lydia tears up and throw.)
The film takes Lydia’s point of view throughout. She’s lived so long in the world of private jets and private foundations that everything else feels like a terrible descent. He identifies so closely with his point of view that he even describes several of his dreams. Yet despite being in her head, Field doesn’t bother to show what she knows about her relationships with two of the film’s key characters. he does not convey what Lydia knows of his apparent wrongdoings, whether with flashbacks, internal monologues, or details of investigations. The film seems to want it both ways: it supports Lydia’s point of view on music, her professional relationships and her everyday aesthetic, while carefully cultivating ambiguity about what Lydia is accused of, in order to point the finger at characters who rush to pass judgment based on what is shown (or, what is not). By eliminating the accusations, Field shows what narrative he finds significant enough to put on screen. By filtering Lydia’s cinematic subjectivity to include disturbing dreams but not disturbing memories, it shows what aspect of her character really interests her. By allowing his past to be defined by his resume, he shows that he, too, is seduced by it and has little interest in seeing beyond it.
This film about the life and work of an artist is, for the most part, totally unenlightening about the music on which it is centered. It delivers some superficial details about Lydia’s effort to perform the film’s core piece, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, in terms of the composer’s biography. As for the new music, Lydia may order it and direct it, she may urge Max to find out the feelings in it, but the film never shows what Lydia herself does or finds in it. The film’s finest moments are the rare, almost documentary scope, in which Lydia, in rehearsal with the orchestra, urges and directs the musicians in fine points of phrasing and other expressive detail.
Yet the music itself is filmed with an absence of style. Not a single image of the orchestra at work has visual melody or contrapuntal density, and the filming of the performance seems borrowed from any DVD of a symphony orchestra. (By contrast, see Edgar Ulmer’s film about the real conductor Leopold Stokowski and the musicians of his orchestra in the 1947 film “Carnegie Hall”.) the performance is in no way ridiculous, but because the images Field’s clumsy and crude make it look that way. In a climactic scene, in which Lydia vents her largely suppressed rage at her perceived persecution, she emerges from the wings of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra concert hall to the sound of the opening trumpet call of the Fifth by Mahler, which Field turns into the backing music equivalent of a baseball player.
The film is no less obtuse when it comes to the artistry of the power plays and personal relationships that go into making the music. A young cellist, Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer), whom Lydia chooses based on his attraction to her, stealthily challenging the blind audition, turns out to be a gifted musician whose special talents Lydia highlights (with a planned performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto). Far from alienating the somewhat disoriented orchestra, Olga quickly won their admiration. Additionally, the primary beneficiary of the charges against Lydia (significantly, relegated to New York gossip Job) is lesser-talented bandleader, friendly arts bureaucrat (and funder of his mentorship program), Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong). The only moving aspect of musicians’ offstage lives involves the fear of exposure queer musicians have endured, the distortion of their privacy by pressure to maintain secrecy, and Lydia’s confession to life-threatening issues. career that she and Sharon endured when they made their relationship public. Yet, at the same time, Field has the nerve to compare today’s #MeToo era – in which, according to one character, to be accused is to be considered guilty – to the supposed excesses and false accusations of the post-war denazification period in Germany.
‘Tár’s’ cautious ambiguities offer a kind of plausible deniability to its relentless conservative push-button, and its aesthetic is no less regressive, conservative and narrow. The film is constructed as a series of scenes that jump from place to place, even jumping a few minutes or hours ahead, and Lydia Tár’s characterization is equally disjointed. Blanchett’s performance is not enough: she embodies each moment with sharpness and emphasis but, despite her supremely skillful efforts, Field does not forge dramatic unity. The film is a slew of illustrated plot points and talking points but, between shots and taglines, neither its protagonist nor its world seem to exist at all. “Tár” digests high art and high-flying talk about it, into a smooth and superficial whole. It’s as far from the great art of cinema as most film scores are from a Mahler symphony. ♦