Tár: Film of the Year

Earlier this year I named The Northman the film of the year, but that was premature. The honor goes to Tár, which I managed to see over Thanksgiving week-end, and then watched it again two days later. It’s Todd Field’s best effort as a writer-director; it’s Cate Blanchett’s best performance of all time (yes, even better than Carol); the kind of film you indulge by losing yourself in for two and a half hours, wishing for five more. It’s also a film that’s very easy to mistake — as I did on first viewing — as being based on a true account. So I’ll say upfront that Lydia Tár is a fictional character. You don’t need to wonder about what liberties have been taken for sake of drama. Her sociopathy is built from the ground up.

Lydia is a maestro — the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic — who rises high and falls low. Her story is essentially about what greatness does to someone who achieves it. The cost of ambition and power is depicted on an epic scale that I haven’t seen in a film since There Will Be Blood (2007). A Vox reviewer noted the comparison as well. Oil tycoon Daniel Plainview ended up alone and miserable, much as Lydia does when she’s finally ousted from the Berlin orchestra and can only get a job teaching and conducting in the Third World:

“Their lives aren’t perfect matches, but the same principle applies: that they’ve clawed their way up a mountain composed of dead and wounded bodies, and perch atop it with a shiny, composed facade. It’s only through cracks in the veneer that you can glimpse the real person. They are ruthless and bitter and brilliant. Their teeth are always on edge, their jaws always grinding. That Lydia is a woman only adds to it all; she’s not meant to have gotten here in the first place.”

There’s so much one could say about Tár, but I’ll look at one particular scene that has gone viral. People are calling it the “cancel culture scene”, in which Lydia instructs a woke student (named Max) to let go of the ego in service to the music. His problem? He resents (wait for it) having to learn Bach, because “white male cis composers aren’t his thing”. To which Lydia derisively says:

[Lydia] “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity.”

Max sputters that he does like Edgard Varèse. Lydia’s scorn continues to roll over:

[Lydia] “Oh, well, then you must be aware that Varèse famously stated that jazz is a negro product exploited by the Jews. That didn’t stop Jerry Goldsmith from ripping him off for his Planet of the Apes score. It’s kind of a perfect insult, don’t you think? But you see, the problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissonant is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours. Now, someday, Max, when you go out into the world, and you guest-conduct for a major or minor orchestra, you may notice that the players have more than light bulbs and music on their stands. They will also have been handed rating sheets — the purpose of which is to rate you. Now, what kind of criteria would you hope that they would use to do this? Your score reading and stick technique or something else?”

Max says nothing.

[Lydia] “All right, everyone. Using Max’s criteria, let’s consider Max’s thing, applied to Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. Now, can we agree on two pieces of observation? One, that Anna was born in Iceland. And two, that she is a super-hot young woman. Show of hands? All right, now let’s turn our gaze back to Max and see if we can square how any of those things possibly relate to him.”

Max gets up and leaves, calling Lydia a “fucking bitch”.

[Lydia] “And you are a robot. I mean, unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media. If you want to dance the mass, you must service the composer. You have to sublimate yourself — your ego and, yes, your identity.”

If only more teachers had this sort of backbone. But while Lydia’s scoldings are appropriate — especially her parting blow about the ego — the irony is that she will end up letting her own ego destroy her. Her colossal ego is established in the opening scene: in an interview on stage she declares that as a maestro she has the power to stop and start time. (“You cannot start without me, I start the clock… Sometimes my hand stops, which means that time stops.”) Her woke students may be morons, but that doesn’t mean she’s a hero or “good guy”. You’re not supposed to cheer for anyone in Tár, even those you may want to cheer for in the heat of the moment. You’re supposed to be unsettled by everyone; think Little Children (Field’s last film), in which every character is pathetic. Tar‘s characters aren’t that bad, but they are full of mess, and Lydia most of all. Her habit of grooming female students for sexual favors finally catches up to her.

Field is able to engage identity politics and power imbalances without lecturing the audience, and that’s a rare feat in film these days. He has no interest in favoring a particular side or viewpoint, which makes Tár artistic, not political, and lets the viewer wrestle with the issues. It doesn’t judge Lydia or any other character. It trusts the viewer’s intelligence. I’m still drinking glasses of wisdom from it, but I’m taking these two Lydia-lines as my quotes for the year: (1) The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity. (2) In order to better ourselves, we must sublimate our ego and even our identity.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

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