Lydia Tár Is Not an Art Monster
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 student at Juilliard in Todd Field’s magisterial new film. By this standard, Warehouse itself succeeds: It is lush with questions poised between interpretations like a gymnast balanced on a beam. Critics and commentators disagree not only about its meaning but about the rudiments of its plot. Is Tár, played by a magnificently imperious Cate Blanchett, a sexual predator or a victim of “cancel culture”? Does she demonstrate the importance of separating art from its makers, or is her demise evidence that there is, in fact, a close relationship between traditionalist aesthetics and reactionary politics? Is her downfall even real, or is it hallucinated? Is Tár an artist or an art monster?
What’s clear enough is that Tár is a member of the cultural elect. A conductor of the esteemed Berlin Philharmonic and a celebrated composer, she is one of the happy few fortunate enough to make a decent living in the arts — and one of the even happier few who can afford to carry on in high style. She speeds through the streets of Berlin in a steely Porsche, dons a tailor-made wardrobe of sleek blazers, composes new music in a studio she rents solely as a work space, and returns each evening to an apartment furnished with glistening and manifestly costly severity.
The wife and child who greet her there take a back seat to her endless flurry of professional commitments. Tár has a touching rapport with her daughter, but for the most part, she is too busy shuttling from one speaking engagement to the next to spend much time with her family. When we first encounter her, she is not mothering but struggling to project humility onstage at the New Yorker Festival, where Adam Gopnik is rattling off her many achievements: a Ph.D. in musicology, innumerable awards, apprenticeship with none other than the legendary Leonard Bernstein. Afterward, she barely manages to squeeze in a lunch date with a colleague before she is impelled to dash off and teach a master class at Juilliard, which is where she extols art that asks questions.
Yet Tár has not taken her own judicious remarks to heart. She is not asking. She is asserting, even grandstanding. Her polemic is directed toward a student who declares himself too much of a “BIPOC pangender person” to appreciate Bach or Beethoven. This feeble straw man, by far the movie’s weakest point, ends by calling Tár a bitch and storming out of the classroom. She pauses long enough to shout after him that he is a robot before forging ahead with her monologue. Both of them have a point, though neither appears to have learned much from their exchange. After the master class, Tár flies back to Berlin in a private jet. As soon as she arrives, she gets right back to the all-consuming business of succeeding ruthlessly — 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.
Back in Berlin, Tár performs her daily routine — jogging so frantically that we wonder what (or whom) she wants to outrun, preparing for an important performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, lecherously contriving to give a pretty young cellist a solo that the inexperienced woman probably does not deserve. At one point, Tár’s beleaguered assistant warns her that she has received “another weird email from Krista.” We still do not know who Krista is, much less how many weird emails she has sent already, when the assistant breaks the news that she has killed herself.
Now the pace of the film accelerates like a broken metronome clacking ever faster. Hermeneutic entanglements proliferate, and patterns emerge as possible clues. The documentary quality of the opening sequence, in which Gopnik plays himself, gives way to a churning fever dream. Ominous shadows flicker at the edges of the frame, and a terrible scream rings out while Tár is jogging in the park. In the derelict apartment complex where the pretty young cellist lives, there is a growling dog so enormous 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 gnaw at her unbearably. Even the hum of the refrigerator is enough to wake her up at night.
In garbled snatches, we discover that Krista was a promising student in a fellowship program that Tár spearheaded. Something happened between the teacher and her apprentice, and Tár sent a series of emails to other prominent conductors warning them not to take Krista on. Perhaps Tár seduced Krista, or perhaps their relationship was consensual (albeit dubiously asymmetrical). Maybe their romance went sour for no particular reason, or maybe Tár dropped her protégé maliciously. Perhaps Tár destroyed the ingenue’s career without cause, or maybe Krista really was as disturbed as Tár claims. Maybe Tár is disgraced and fired for her alleged misconduct and she really does arrange an embarrassing meeting with a reputation-management consultant who counsels her to “rebuild … from the ground up,” or perhaps the final third of the movie is an extended nightmare.
In any case, we watch as Tár takes refuge in an unnamed South Asian country, where she prepares to conduct again. She ascends the podium with her usual rigid dignity and turns toward the musicians. Only then does the camera pan to reveal the audience — a bunch of cosplayers dressed like characters from the video game Monster Hunter. Tár is conducting a video-game soundtrack. On the face of it, her humiliation looks to be complete.
Warehouse is teeming with questions, and they are surely plentiful enough to sustain the many diverging answers that critics have proposed. Field’s film is about mortality, generational conflict, and guilt that prowls like a predator, but it is at least as much about how an artist can be devoured by her own image — until she is no longer an artist at all.
“You gotta sublimate yourself, your ego, and, yes, your identity. You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself,” Tár declares rather grandiosely in her master class. She is right, but once again, she fails to follow her own advice. Instead of obliterating herself, she is off posing for photo shoots and writing a memoir called Storage on Storage.
Does Tár want to be Storage on Storageor is she forced to be Storage on Storage by dint of her position? There is no question that she enjoys tormenting her students and bullying her subordinates, and truth be told, her magnetic hauteur is what makes her so mesmerizing (if difficult) to watch. But weariness and regret soften her icy mien when she is dutifully trotting out quotable sound bites at the New Yorker Festival, talking to her assistant about recordings of an imminent performance, searching her own name on Twitter — in short, doing everything but making or listening to music.
Tár may be drawn compulsively to what she knows in her marrow to be the superficies of a role that can only be vindicated by music itself, but at least she winces at her own concessions. Many times, she retreats to her studio to compose, but on every occasion, she is interrupted and gives up. In more than two and a half hours of footage, she never listens to music for the sheer joy of it. The one time she puts on a jazz record at home, she intends to pacify her panicked wife, whose anxiety pills she has pilfered.
Blanchett’s performance is foremost among the many aspects of Field’s film that have divided audiences. Is it riveting? Is it affected? I could not wrench my eyes away from Tár’s crisis, but a writer I admire told me that he found the actress almost sickeningly false. It is true that Blanchett’s gestures are conspicuously considered and her tone laden with self-importance, yet falsity befits a figure so utterly hollowed into an advertisement for herself. After Tár’s shaming, we learn that she hails from humble origins and that her patrician mannerisms are, in fact, one component of the crumbling façade she cultivated so strenuously for so long. Maybe it is the specter of Linda Tarr, a working-class girl from Staten Island who watched Bernstein lectures on VHS, whom Tár hopes to outrun on her jogs. Even the name she adopts as a signifier of sophistication is a grotesque anagrammatic distortion of the word art.
The ending of the film, then, may be perversely redemptive. At last, fate affords Tár the chance to annihilate herself in the service of her art. The cynical reading of her surprising new project is that she is only doing what the sleazy reputation-management consultant has urged her to do — rebuilding from the ground up. But Tár takes her responsibilities more seriously than she needs to if they are merely a means to reputational resurrection. She is as deadly earnest about her new assignment as she once was about Mahler’s Fifth — if not more so, for now she has nothing else to be deadly earnest about. For the first time, we witness her working. Instead of flitting from distraction to distraction, she scours music libraries for the composer’s score, and when she finds it, crouches over it in a restaurant with a pen, her face furrowed in concentration. “Let’s talk about the composer’s intent with this piece,” she tells her orchestra in rehearsal. When the prestige and social rewards are stripped away, the only thing left is the music itself — and even a sentimental and bombastic soundtrack is infinitely preferable to silence.
Despite the pomposity of her self-presentation, Tár has long been less of an art monster than a reputation-management monster. The question that “involves” the film’s audience, as Tár herself would put it, is whether it is too late for her to become a different and more dangerous beast. Maybe she is as surprised as I am to find that, in the end, she confronts the little that remains to her with dignity — that she, at least briefly, proves herself an artist after all.
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