Lydia Tár Is Not an Art Monster

“It’s always the question that involves the listener. It’s never the answer, right?” Famed conductor Lydia Tár asks a Juilliard student in Todd Field’s magical new film. According to this standard, Tar it manages itself: It is lush with questions posed between interpretations like a gymnast balancing on a beam. Critics and commentators disagree not only on its meaning, but also on elements of its plot. Is Tár, played by a magnificent Cate Blanchett, a sexual predator or a victim of “cancellation culture”? Does she demonstrate the importance of separating art from its creators, or is her death evidence that there is, in fact, a close relationship between traditionalist aesthetics and reactionary politics? Is her fall real or a hallucination? Is Tár an artist or an art monster?

What is quite clear is that Tár is a member of the cultural elite. A conductor of the famous Berlin Philharmonic and a renowned composer, she is one of the lucky few lucky enough to make a good living in the arts – and one of the luckiest few who can afford to carry on in style up. She speeds through the streets of Berlin in a steel Porsche, wears a wardrobe of beautiful jackets, composes new music in a studio she rents only as a workspace, and returns every evening to a furnished apartment with distinctly costly luster and austerity. .

The wife and child who greet her there take second place to her endless stream of professional commitments. Tár has a touching relationship with her daughter, but for the most part, she’s too busy juggling one engagement to another to spend much time with her family. When we first meet her, she is not becoming a mother, but is trying to display humility on stage. The New Yorker The festival, where Adam Gopnik is threatening her many achievements: a Ph.D. in musicology, countless awards, internship with none other than the legendary Leonard Bernstein. Afterwards, she barely manages to squeeze in a lunch date with a colleague before being forced to leave and teach a master class at Juilliard, where she extols the art of asking questions.

Yet Tár did not heed her sober remarks. She is not asking. She is affirming, even grandiose. Her polemic is directed at a student who declares himself too much of an “uncomfortable BIPOC person” to appreciate Bach or Beethoven. This weak straw man, by far the film’s weakest point, ends up calling Tár a whore and storming out of the classroom. She pauses long enough to yell after him that he’s a robot before continuing with her monologue. Both have a point, though neither seems to have learned much from their exchange. After the master class, Tár flies back to Berlin on a private jet. Once she arrives, she goes right back into the all-consuming business of ruthless success—though the more she succeeds, the less time she spends making art. Perhaps she is neither an art monster nor an artist, but a monster of a different kind.

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Back in Berlin, Tár goes about her daily routine – running around so frantically that we wonder what (or who) she wants to cross, preparing for an important performance of Symphony no. the inexperienced woman probably doesn’t deserve it. At one point, Tár’s beleaguered assistant warns him that she’s received “another weird email from Krista.” We still don’t know who Krista is, much less the strange emails she’s already sent, when the assistant breaks the news that she killed herself.

Now the pace of the film quickens like a broken metronome that beats faster and faster. Hermeneutic entanglements add up and patterns emerge as possible clues. The documentary quality of the opening sequence, in which Gopnik plays himself, gives way to a fever dream. Ominous shadows flicker at the edges of the frame, and a terrifying scream is heard as Tár runs through the park. In the abandoned apartment complex where the beautiful 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 wear on him unbearably. Even the sound of the refrigerator is enough to wake him up at night.

In botched heists, we discover that Krista was a promising student in a dating program that Tár ran. Something happened between the teacher and her student, and Tár sent a series of emails to other prominent leaders warning them not to take Krista. Perhaps Tár seduced Krista, or perhaps their relationship was consensual (though suspiciously asymmetrical). Maybe their romance broke up for no particular reason, or maybe Tár left her protégé out of spite. Maybe Tár destroyed the ingénue’s career for no reason, or maybe Krista really was as concerned as Tár claims. Perhaps Tár has been shamed and fired for her misconduct and she actually arranges an embarrassing meeting with a reputation management consultant who advises her to “rebuild … from the ground up”, or perhaps the third the end of the film is an extended nightmare.

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In any case, we watch as Tár takes refuge in an unnamed South Asian country, where she prepares to rule again. She ascends the podium with her usual stiff dignity and turns to the musicians. Only then does the camera pan the audience – a group of fellow players dressed as characters from the video game Monster hunter. Tár is directing a video game soundtrack. At first glance, her humiliation seems complete.

Tar it is full of questions, and they are certainly abundant enough to support many different answers that critics have proposed. Field’s film is about mortality, generational conflict, and guilt that stalks like a predator, but it’s at least as much about how an artist can be consumed by her own image—until she’s no longer an artist.

“You have to sublimate yourself, your ego and, yes, your identity. In fact, you have to stand before the public and God and wipe yourself, Tár declares quite magnificently in her master class. She is right, but once again, she fails to follow her own advice. Instead of erasing herself, she’s posing for photo shoots and writing a self-titled memoir Tár to Tár.

Does Tár want to be? Tár to Táror is bound to be Tár to Tár because of its position? There’s no doubt that she loves to torment her students and bully her subordinates, and truth be told, her magnetic personality is what makes her so fascinating (if difficult) to watch. But weariness and regret soften her icy mood as she dutifully churns out quotable sound bites in The New Yorker Festival, talking to her assistant about taping an upcoming show, searching for her name on Twitter — in short, doing anything but making or listening to music.

Tár may compulsively retreat from what she knows in her core as the surfaces of a role that can only be justified by the music itself, but at least she retreats from her concessions. Many times she retreats to her studio to compose, but each time she is interrupted and gives up. In more than two and a half hours of footage, she never listens to music for her sheer joy. Once she puts on a jazz record in the house, she aims to calm her panicked wife, who she robbed of her anxiety pills.

Blanchett’s performance is the most important among the many aspects of Field’s film that have divided audiences. Is it stinging? Is it affected? I couldn’t take my eyes off Tár’s crisis, but a writer I admire told me he found the actress almost disgustingly fake. It’s true that Blanchett’s gestures are conspicuously considered and her tone is loaded with self-deprecation, but the fakeness suits a figure so steeped in self-promotion. After Tár’s shaming, we learn that she comes from humble origins and that her patrician manners are, in fact, a component of the crumbling facade she cultivated so diligently for so long. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Linda Tarr, a working-class girl from Staten Island who used to watch Bernstein’s lectures on VHS, that Tár hopes to capture with her run. Even the name she uses as an indicator of sophistication is a grotesque anagrammatic distortion of the word art.

The film’s ending, then, may be perversely redemptive. Finally, fate gives Tár the opportunity to annihilate herself in the service of her art. The cynical reading of her surprising new project is that she is doing just what the poor reputation management consultant has been urging her to do – rebuilding from the ground up. But Tár takes her responsibilities more seriously than she should if they are merely a means of reviving her reputation. She is as deadly serious about her new task as she once was about Mahler’s Fifth—if not more so, for now she has nothing else to be deadly serious about. For the first time we are witnessing her work. Instead of going from distraction to distraction, she scours music libraries for the composer’s score, and when she finds it, she crouches over him in a restaurant with a pen, her face focused. “Let’s talk about the composer’s intention with this piece,” she tells her orchestra in rehearsal. When prestige and social rewards are stripped away, the only thing left is the music itself—even a sentimental, bombastic soundtrack is infinitely preferable to silence.

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Despite the pomp of her self-presentation, Tár has long been less an art monster than a reputation management monster. The question that “engages” the film’s audience, as Tár himself would say, is whether it is too late for her to become a different and more dangerous beast. Perhaps she is as surprised as I am to find that, in the end, she copes with what little she has left with dignity—that she, at least briefly, proves herself an artist.


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