Lydia Tár, the title character in Todd Field’s most recent feature film, is entirely bewitching. She has the elegance of a queen, residing over her orchestra and her music with her baton as scepter — ruling time itself. In a flash, she casts her arms about her in a whirl of clarified emotion, and music sweeps through the concert hall like wind rushing through a willow tree. Her face is strangely contorted with stern concentration and soaring pleasure. Yes, she’s bewitching, but there is something haunting about her. It makes one wonder, who really is she?
“Tár,” similar to movies such as “Whiplash” and “Black Swan,” is about the ruthless pursuit for creative excellence at the cost of corrupted character. And yet, it notably departs from the trope of obsessive artist in order to, perhaps daringly, wrestle with issues such as cancel culture, identity politics and the #MeToo movement. In this respect “Tár” feels like an especially modern and timely movie. Even in Lydia’s interview with Adam Gopnik, a real-life staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine, the pandemic is off-handedly referenced, signaling that director Field intentionally means to engage with current discourse.
Whereas movies like “Whiplash” and “Black Swan” focus on the concentrated effort of a creative genius to master their craft to the detriment of their psychological well being, “Tár” examines the subsequent effects of such a pursuit — the corrupted yet unquestionably accomplished artist who has settled into smug satisfaction regarding their renown. This is Lydia, played by Cate Blanchett, who at first appears deserving of this respect. She is, as she commands the audience with the wave of her fingertips and the clarified pitch of her voice, more akin to the music teacher Terence Fletcher from “Whiplash” or ballet instructor Thomas Leroy in “Black Swan,” than to the leading roles of either film. Not in regard to their overt abuse of their students, but in the sense that she is an image of perfectly distilled creativity; she’s reached the source of the mountain brook and learned to direct its path wherever she pleases.
And yet, there are the subtle signs of disturbance; beneath Lydia’s collected veneer, something turbulent lurks. During the first few scenes, I was struck by how Cate Blanchett flourished her hands here and there, compulsively straightened her shirt and fluctuated her voice in ways that seemed like an affectation. I thought momentarily that it might be stilted acting on Blanchett’s part (unthinkable in retrospect), that she was trying to play the role of a high class, sophisticated artist and did so by reducing such a figure to the sum of their elegant mannerisms. But the truth is the other way around. It is Lydia who is acting. Her peculiar ticks are one part subtle evidence of an OCD diagnosis that is routinely hinted at but never referred to and one part affectations to become a person that she simply is not. Who that person is, the queen maestro of the orchestra perhaps, is not Lydia, but merely the person she assumes just as she dons the stiff black and white garb of conductor.
Who we really are matters in “Tár.” And who we are is more than the superficial sum of our parts, our identities strung together to make a marketable package to the world. In a telling scene early on in the film, Lydia takes to task a Juilliard student who says they dislike white male composers like Bach and Beethoven because they are a BIPOC pangender person. Lydia, with acrid, biting wit argues that an artist should be examined for the quality of their work, not their identities nor their private life. Here the film does remarkable work wrestling with such a sensitive issue. Without clearly landing on either side, the film seems to suggest that both Lydia and her student are wrong; to reduce creative genius to the tally of their oppressors or oppressed identities is a shallow, dull way to examine the world, and yet, who the person is behind the work matters. We cannot (and don’t) examine art by itself.
And what becomes increasingly ironic is that despite Lydia dismissing those who define themselves in terms of their identities, it is she who plays the game of identity politics. Lydia, a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” woman, thinks that she can escape scrutiny, that she is incapable of all the corrupting customs of power, such as manipulation and abuse, precisely because of her marginalized identity as a lesbian and as a female composer. But the reality that the film unfolds is that Lydia isn’t exempt from scrutiny —that what she does behind closed doors makes her, her. And that who she is matters a great deal.
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