On my thirtieth birthday I returned again to the Castle Cinema for another double bill, same as last year’s celebration when Titane blew my tiny mind. This time around it is Tàr, the first of the double feature, that I am going to discuss. It didn’t blow my mind in the same visceral way as Titane, and I didn’t cry, but it did raise a lot of questions about the relationship between art and artists that I’ve found fascinating for a long time, but never really analysed before.
The film definitely merits a second watch, especially because of its use of many languages in various quotations that would benefit from some subtitles. That impenetrable choice did go some way to illustrate the elitist snobbishness of the classical music world. Also, my cinema experience was slightly marred by some disappointing drilling in the adjoining building, which was redeemed by at times merged with the score so it had moments of sounding almost musical.
While watching, it is hard not to be completely seduced by Blanchett’s character throughout the first two thirds of the film, only to leave the cinema with a slightly icky feeling, like you’ve just been scammed. The protagonist’s continued insistence throughout the film on the separation between art and artist sounds transparently like a way to excuse her own bad behaviour; you can do what you want as long as you are still creating great work that everyone loves. By the time we meet Tàr, in an interview with The New York Times, she is so sheltered from the world that she exists in a bubble of luxury hotels, private jets, and constant adoration. Having an assistant that does everything you want, that you keep hanging around on a little string, what does that do to a person? No good things, it seems.
Her actions involving the Russian cellist were … uncomfortable. She conjured a manipulative, ‘our little secret’ on the surface unimpeachable but clearly weird when you are aware of all the knowledge and control she has, and her decisions are a blatant ‘fuck you’ to the lead cellist whom she simply finds boring. So much for separating the art from the artist herself. If Tàr doesn’t think you’re hot and exciting, or she thinks your shoes are boring, then your worth as a musician (or as a person) seems to be null and void. This is how she treated her assistant, and Sebastian, and the more senior musicians of her orchestra. Thank god the young cellist had her wits about her.
I had high hopes for the Juilliard scene – hopefully here there will be some good counter-arguments to Tàr’s rather But the students in Tàr’s seminar were disappointingly pathetic, their lack of a reasonable response made me cringe. At least one of them could have come up with some good counter arguments or more interesting things to say – and refrained from calling Tàr a bitch after 10 minutes, which rather vindicated her than challenged her ideology. That aspect of it was disappointing, especially when there were so many possible responses.
Tàr’s post-gender rhetoric, also, was nonsense; when she suggested removing the gender requirement for her conducting fellowship you had the feeling she was simply bored of the subject. Yes, maybe the organisation could make the opportunities more intersectional, but also consider that she only got to where she is by playing the same game as her predecessors (being ‘out the game’ doesn’t mean you didn’t play at all). The orchestra’s previous conductor, Tàr’s mentor Andris, was married and having a long-standing affair with Sebastian whom she detested because he was a boring old man; she effortlessly turned that fact to her advantage when trying to oust him. Tàr’s grooming process suggests an institutional pattern of abuse, as revealed in the immediate guilty conscience of Andris’ outburst when she broached the seedy subject. Her own paranoia is a manifestation of her guilt, despite her attempts to ignore it. These feelings are ultimately vindicated by the theft of the Mahler score from her home. People are out to get her, and she knows it.
The essential question for me is this: if you continue creating amazing art, your personal life perhaps can be excused, ignored, and perhaps it should be. Moral standards shift all the time. In this way, both the Juilliard students and Tàr were both wrong, and right. To be honest, a lot of people are boring, and I would rather watch films about exciting people and consume exciting art. But what if you stop making amazing art? Tàr’s own compositions were terrible, at least the one we heard her writing, that the Russian cellist played on the piano. It certainly wasn’t a Bach or Beethoven standard, composers whose pieces we’d heard her defend so much. The mediocrity of her latest composition did cast some doubt on her previous work for which she had apparently won the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
The final scenes in an Asian, possibly Chinese, city at the end of the film were genuinely upsetting compared to the modernist serenity of the Berlin scenes: noise, mess, ugly streets, shouting and car horns blaring. I could feel the punishment, possibly self-imposed, that had been inflicted on her; though it was unclear what the wider outcome of the scandal was, as we never see any confrontation. It could be her own way of paying penance, enacting her own suffering. Knowing what we know of the character, we know how humiliating and unpleasant this must be for her, though she never outwardly admits it; only a slight tightness in her face and quiet submission gives her away.
Lydia Tàr is essentially a cult of personality. She tells everyone she’s brilliant and she looks like she should be. But she contributes little but outdated hot takes and a glamorous lifestyle. She lies throughout the film (the handbag, for example) and plays games with the people around her. She is a despot in a glass castle. Never mind separating the art from the artist; separate the Cate Blanchett from the Lydia Tàr and we can clearly see the dynamics at play. People are allowed to behave this way because they are super hot, because they are glamorous, because they are powerful, charismatic, seductive. I’m sure if you look like Cate Blanchett and wear bespoke tailored suits, things probably are a lot easier for you in some respects, and you will find it easy to overcome whatever prejudice might be held against you, in order to ape the dodgy behaviour of your predecessors.
Unfortunately, the moral of the story seems to be this: you can’t be a conductor without an orchestra; you can’t be a film star without a film set, script, director and team of people which you either work with and respect, or you run into trouble. It was two of Tàr’s underlings (the young cellist and the assistant) conspiring together that ultimately led to the conductor’s downfall and exile. This idea was underlined by the decision to start the film with credits of all the hundreds of ‘underlings’ who worked on the project (sound engineers, runners, make-up assistants etc) leaving the big stars to the end.
Further reading: this fascinating page of Tàr trivia from Vulture magazine, imagining how our titular character would interact with real popular culture. This is a very exciting article for me, even though it’s just a fun promotion for the film, as I’m interested in the narrative potentials of blending a symbolic fictional character with reality; the creation of a hero not that we have, but that we should have, that it would make sense for us to have.
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[…] Note January 2023: I have been considering the recent film Tàr (blog post here) as a possible candidate for inclusion on the Pervy Old Men List, which goes against my earlier […]