Religion & Liberty Online

Tár Falls Just Short of Greatness

(Image credit: Focus Features)

The film lauded mostly for Cate Blanchett’s commanding performance is something of a critique of our banal, identity-ridden cancel culture. It seems no one can be truly great in a world that fears and despises greatness.

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One of this year’s Oscar darlings, Tár, also turns out to be the only major movie since #metoo to mount an attack on cancel culture. This is paradoxical, of course, as we see from the three nominations—Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Original Screenplay—received by the artist behind the movie, Todd Field. His success is in one sense a surprise, since he hasn’t directed a movie in 16 years. In another sense, it’s par for the course. His two other movies, In The Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), were also Oscar darlings, complex psychological studies of liberal society that received eight nominations in total, three for Field himself.

The movie’s star, the lovely Cate Blanchett, has also received her eighth Oscar nomination, which might lead to her third Oscar, for a similarly paradoxical performance. She plays Lydia Tár, a trendy, elite lesbian, the most celebrated conductor in America, perhaps the world—but of working-class origins and entirely reactionary views about music, artistic greatness, and culture. Her story is almost a tragedy, a fall from greatness, and reveals the contradiction at the core of the liberal elite in our times: a claim to superiority over the uneducated and an endless cultivation of envy and resentment that requires prestigious victims to satisfy an abstract egalitarianism.

Tár starts by setting up this contradiction in Lydia’s character and career. She likes the old-fashioned dress of the gentleman and has her suits made accordingly, with the craft and confidence in high quality that made empire and republicanism both so handsome until the 1960s. The suit also suggests aristocracy, not just because of its high quality, but because it means commanding the time of people who work for a lifetime to achieve expertise in order to put on a public show.

Field cuts these scenes—the servants working for the master to enjoy a privileged, splendid, free life, it almost seems—against a very funny recital of Lydia’s storied career by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, in advance of a public conversation at the New Yorker Festival. It’s as pretentious and vacuous as you might expect and serves to show that the most splendid part of Lydia’s life is the silliest and her career has a certain shallowness, an attempt to be all things to all people, to study Mahler and the music of primitive tribes both, and to reduce Talmudic wisdom to Manhattan mannerisms.

People like Gopnik and publications like the New Yorker are not capable of judging great conductors or of dedicating themselves to understanding great music; but they are arbiters of taste—culture vultures, to borrow a midcentury phrase. Lydia acts at ease, not to say at home among them; she has deluded herself into thinking that being atop the world means that she’s in control, even though she cannot make herself understood. She’s not an educator of the elite liberals but the prized possession of a season, a creature of fashion and fickleness, not a priestess in a temple of culture.

Lydia is preparing to complete a cycle of recordings of Mahler’s Symphonies. This should be her digital apotheosis—she will become a name people revere among other great conductors, something more lasting, if not eternal, than the magazine covers or the privileges of the elite. Instead it prepares her fall, as everybody gradually turns against her and she begins to realize that her own mistakes and misdeeds are, far from a privilege, evidence against her putative divinity. Celebrity worship is not quite celebrity, and it’s certainly not worship proper. She quickly becomes a #metoo target after it transpires that she has taken liberties with young women throughout her career.

Punishment and poetic justice are strange things. Lydia is certainly not above reproach, but it’s hard to say exactly why she must be destroyed, personally, professionally, and even beyond the world of flesh, in her postmortem reputation. Indeed, I struggle to find any fashionable word to describe her that is not the vulgar jargon of activism—“girlboss,” “thought leader”—or the vocabulary of therapeutic blame, which I find equally vulgar. She fails to be a true feminist, but she’s surely supposed to be far more accomplished and daring than most feminists! She’s somewhat shy of a tragic hero because music, certainly classical music, simply doesn’t matter. One cannot imagine that, say, Barack Obama cares much about Mahler, but he might actually enjoy some of the rap music he claimed to imbibe.

Field knows this very well. He stages the beginning of her downfall at a lecture at Julliard, where she has to contend with a silly identity freak (pangender?) who despises Bach, his being a white cisgender male, after all. Lydia loves Bach, believes she even understands Bach, but there is nothing she can do to get that across. By identifying with the past greatness of music, she makes it too obvious how inferior music is now. Even the elite students resent it and take their wounded inferiority as an inspiration to revenge. Bach might survive—Lydia won’t. Instead, she goes from celebrity to viral.

Her #metoo scandal has to do with a woman committing suicide, which somehow involves Lydia—they had been lovers and Lydia abandoned her and even perhaps hurt her career. It’s hard to say quite what happened, as it usually is with these private matters; Field shows them more in hints, in Lydia’s dreams, in emails they exchanged, in cinematic echoes of the dead woman. Lydia’s downfall, however, is swift as she learns that she never inspired daring in any of the institutions she graced with her presence but only helped them conceal their cowardice. She loses everything—from her women-centric charity to her conducting position—but strangely, she loses her mind to some extent as well.

Do artists have to be immoral? Lydia seems to have learned it from the liberal elites she admired and rose among, hiding, if not forgetting, her roots in the lowliest of the boroughs, so lowly they vote Republican—Staten Island. She cultivated elite tastes and tried to discover her identity through them, hoping not just to make something of herself but also something that corresponds with the promises of authenticity. A life as delightful and fulfilling as people claim music inspires them to be. Far from being in charge of her audience—the conductor as tyrant—she’s the embodiment of the audience’s desires. That is inhuman, however; it led her to callousness and cruelty to other people, to hide from herself and from the public the consequences of that attempt to shine. An underdog overcoming the odds should be the American dream, justice and then some, a victory over an unjust world full of suffering. It should prove providential! That can make people want to enact providence themselves. Indeed, there is something impious in Lydia’s brilliance that eventually comes back to break her spirit when she realizes she’s not above feeling guilty.

I’m not sure Field’s conclusion, somewhat sentimental, is warranted by his higher, more tragic ambitions. Lydia doesn’t rise too high and doesn’t fall too low; she’s denied a tragic death, for example, but she also seems to lose her nerve, the great ability to guess that makes an artist seem to control an audience, if not to prophesy. You have to watch for yourself and decide to what extent Lydia’s immorality is punished and to what extent the high hopes of cultural sophistication are dashed. I was impressed with Field’s attempt to portray greatness and the natural grace we now associate with the arts, which does seem indeed to rebuke quietly the ugliness of our public life, with its moralism, activism, and passion to destroy the past.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.