dir: Todd Fields
I can’t even with this film.
Atop almost every ‘best of’ list for last year from every critic and reviewer, it’s definitely a case for me of “these jerks are getting high on their own supply and I don’t get it”. This level of groupthink only comes around every other month or so.
There’s also an almost universal consensus that Blanchett will get another Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Lydia Tár, the main character, in case you didn’t know. I personally take it as a mortal insult, because, really, every award should be going to Michelle Yeoh for her heroic work as a depressed mum in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Were there any justice in this or any other universe, it would be so, but this is not a just universe, and never has been.
So, instead, the award will go to the person that does the most acting rather than the ‘best’.
I’m not trying to imply that this isn’t a well-crafted, carefully constructed movie about… whatever it’s about. It is meticulously crafted. It also has one of the most erudite and over-written scripts of anything I’ve heard in a long time. I don’t know if people in the symphonic world talk like this all the time (how exhausting that must be), but I am pretty sure that people wouldn’t be able to communicate like this constantly without wanting to shoot themselves and / or each other.
Exhausting is probably the descriptor that most often comes to mind to discuss how it felt for me to watch the whole film. It’s over 2 and a half hours long. And maybe there are times where the main character is doing something intriguing, but, honestly, she isn’t that interesting to me.
Lydia Tár is like the greatest conductor in human history. She has won every award imaginable, she’s at the top of her game and top of the ‘classical’ music world. She is the maestro in charge of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She has a wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss) who is also first chair / violin at the orchestra, and they have a daughter together called Petra.
Tár has a personal assistant, (Noémie Merlant) Francesca, who does everything down to laundry and is pretty much treated like a trained dog. Sit, heel, good dog – without the ‘good dog’ part. Clearly, Francesca has certain expectations and a certain amount of resentment towards Tár, so they were obviously involved in some way. Yes, I mean sexually.
The entire conceit of the film is based on the fact that this acclaimed, world famous conductor might happen to be female, but she’s just as abusive and terrible as many men have been in the same or similar positions throughout the history of conducting, orchestras, or men. The vast difference here is that she will get a comeuppance, whereas none of the others ever, ever paid the price.
Is that interesting? All her crimes in the past are not observed by us. We know she is haunted by someone, something, but we don’t know if it’s a literal ghost, or is it guilt, her conscience, the soul of a music critic she ran over?
We also know that this being the era we live in, she maybe is being punished because these other guys, these other men who abused their power over people, got away with it. But she can be made to pay, in their place?
On top of the millions of things she’s doing, she takes time out of her punishing schedule to teach a class at Juilliard on conducting / composition / t-shirt printing. She takes apart a student she doesn’t understand who doesn’t understand her, a non-binary student going by Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), whose leg twitches with nervousness, who says of Bach “didn’t that guy have like 20 kids with different women?”
To them composers can be ignored or dismissed if they led immoral lives – whatever qualities their music possesses, it can’t make up for the fact that they did terrible things. These days in certain quarters it carries more weight as an argument for certain people. Tár’s generation is all “you have to be able to separate the art from the artist”, which is the kind of shit excuse people have been making for abusers for decades.
People still make the argument about Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I think it’s a shitty argument. I don’t have to separate the art from the artist. I don’t have to ever listen to Chris Brown or R Kelly as long as I live, but to be honest I never really listened to them before the world found out what colossal pieces of shit they were.
And when you’re talking about the canon of classical music, I guess it only matters to people if they give a tremendous shit about the lives of people from hundreds of years ago and what it means in terms of our ability to enjoy their music now.
People still listen to Wagner, don’t they? Beloved by Nazis, notoriously anti-Semitic, but they still stage the Ring cycle whenever they can, despite the fact that some of those sections are like 5 hours long.
But this flick isn’t about Wagner – it’s about Tár, and her fixation on Gustav Mahler, and especially on doing a live recording of his 5th and most famous symphony.
When I say that, well, it’s the only one of Mahler’s symphonies that I ever owned on CD and listened to repeatedly, and, to be honest, the only part I listened to on repeat was the fourth movement.
Because, it’s so beautiful. It’s one of the most sublime pieces of music ever recorded, and unlike 99 per cent of everything else I’ve ever listened to repeatedly, for me it’s so joyful and swoon-worthy. I feel like I’m suspended in glorious sunbeams / gentle amber fields whenever I hear it.
Now it feels for me like Tár has sullied my relationship with that particular piece of music. Is there no end to her evil?
And by ‘evil’, well, we don’t know the full story, but we know that Tár had some kind of relationship with someone called Krista, whom Tár is now trying to erase all traces of from her life. The predatory stuff she does seems compulsive, because we get the impression that she, despite the vultures circling, embarks on another sequence of whatever the fuck this behavior is with a new, talented cellist called Olga (played by real life cello prodigy Sophie Kauer) that Tár has her eye on.
We know, not only because of the spooky shit happening around Tár that no-one other than Tár can see, that she has reached the “find out” part of the equation, even as our visibility of the “fuck around” section of her life remains opaque. How many sweet young things has she used and discarded? How many of them did she malign or destroy professionally when she no longer got her way with them?
Even as we see the machinations of what she does to get Olga into a position where Tár can exploit her, insult to injury, we realise that maybe Tár doesn’t realise that she doesn’t have the upper hand anymore.
After a “private” study session, Tár drops Olga off at a dilapidated squat. When she tries to follow her, she’s confused, she’s scared by a dog, and she falls over and hurts herself.
She bangs up half of her face on some steps. And instead of her telling her nearest and dearest that she fell over, she tells them she was attacked by some guy.
You could make a lot of this, you could make little of it. But it baffles me, it fucking baffles me when people call this a character study.
What character? With all that clenched overacting, the character seems less and less substantial, and more a construction or confection without a core. So while the last part of the film, her fall from grace, her professional and personal humiliation (culminating in her being relegated to conducting in the Philippines to an audience of gamers and cosplayers) is meant to reveal other aspects of her character, again, I ask, what character? I don’t want to watch stuff to feel schadenfreude, and I certainly didn’t feel any here. People would cut off their fingers for a similar gig that paid that well. She’s lucky she’s not working at Hungry Jacks / Burger King. After all, the adagiettos are better at Hungry Jacks.
I watched this slowly unspooling monstrosity with some curiousity, but not a lot of interest. I feel like the other performers, giving more believable performances around her, buttress the character and the film in a way that shows what a void the central character really is, and I honestly don’t feel like I watched one of the greatest flicks of the year after watching this.
Tár – easily the most pretentious and overrated flick of the year by far.
6 times that single tear she cries after watching that tape of Leonard Bernstein talk about music made me want to hurl out of 10
“The problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissident is that if Bach's talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours.” – what is this bullshit dialogue? - Tár