Released 2022. Director: Todd Field
TO PREPARE US FOR THE COMPLEX CHARACTER OF LYDIA TÁR, writer-director Todd Field sits us through a 12-minute interview at the beginning of the movie. Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker chats with the woman some have described as ‘the greatest conductor of our time’, in front of a full auditorium. The interview covers Tár’s celebrated achievements combing through her illustrious resumé and elicits the maestro’s articulate and impeccably phrased responses to Gopnik’s searching questions.
Step by step, scene by scene, Field builds the character of Tár with precision. The conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s preeminent orchestras, Tár is an extraordinarily distinguished high-achiever who moves in exalted circles. She’s talented, hardworking, dedicated, extremely focused and sits at the top of her profession. Her control and authority is unchallenged, until her kingdom starts to crumble, slowly at first, then spectacularly, and the empress is left with her dignity in shreds.
The movie is about the fall of a narcissist, the swift impact of social media and the rise of cancel culture. It also shows how easy and effortless it can be for someone in a dominant position to be callous, self-serving, manipulative and passively cruel.
You see, Lydia Tár is not really a nice person. Brilliant at her profession, but barely concealed beneath the sheen of polished and privileged position she quietly revels in her ability to elevate or destroy careers and relationships. She displaces a long-serving elder without a thought for what he wants. She tantalizes a loyal underling with false hopes of career advancement. She's careless with her partner's feelings by being serially unfaithful. She manipulates the orchestra and disrupts established norm because she’s infatuated with a new cellist. But chief in the litany of transgressions is Tár’s unrelenting destruction of a musician’s career prospects after the two have fallen out, which eventually pushes the young woman to despair and suicide.
But Tár is not completely without conscience. As a musician she’s naturally attuned to sound, yet when she’s haunted by something beyond her reach, in the dark, in the safety of her home, or a woman’s scream beyond the woods, is that her subconscious niggling?
Cate Blanchett’s performance is sharp and imperative, not only in Tár’s disciplined approach to her music, but more impressively, in her calm and placid way of exerting power. Blanchett embodies the perfectionist’s detail-oriented, critical and scrupulous personality like wearing a second skin. There are many things to praise about the movie, and Blanchett’s work here is among her career best.
There’s a short but effective scene showing the once revered musical genius coming back to her childhood home in suburban America to contrast the lofty lifestyle she’s achieved against her humble origins. Most of all, it shows how she’s turned her back on who she was, even changing her name. Family connection is all but lost, a cold encounter with her brother attests to the fact. In the privacy of her old bedroom she weeps, a rare moment of vulnerability. The question is: is she feeling sorry for herself, or is she sorry for what she’s done to others?
Swiftly, as the scandals break and the accusations mount, Tár loses her position in disgrace. From the highest she’s tumbled to the lowest, now conducting a student’s orchestra in an unfamiliar Asian country, performing to an audience who appear like they’re attending ComicCon. Tár may well be an alien on another planet.
A telling shot is when she goes swimming at a waterfall and hides in a grotto. We see her silhouette against the brightness outside, a lone figure in isolation as she cows in the shadows, away from the other people on the other side.
There is no redemption to the story of Tár. Is Tár a cautionary tale for those who use their position to bully and get their way, or a fairy tale where the villain gets punished? In the last few years we’ve seen famous people in high places caught out for their abusive and exploitative behaviour. The question of how or if we could separate art from the artist has no easy answer. Would you renounce their achievements, never support their work again, or allow them a chance to redeem themselves?
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