TÁR ★★★★★

For several years, director Todd Field considered just writing this idea into a novella. Like his mentor, Stanley Kubrick, who put himself into exile by moving as far away from the clamours of the studios as possible, Field left behind narrative cinema after his bleak depiction of marriage in Little Children. Despite having garnered eight Academy Award nominations with only two films, Field wouldn't attach himself to just any project. He became particular. Here's a great article outlining the dozens of projects he had on the burners.

So when he began writing the screenplay for TÁR at the start of the pandemic, Focus Features greenlit the project immediately. No studio notes attached. In his own admission, Field became more of a technical virtuoso through commercial directing than an "actor's director." The arthouse chic of Little Children which predominantly displayed Field's prowess with actors was married with the transgressive material by author Perrotta. Field astutely transgresses yet again with subjects surrounding gender dynamics, power, pretentiousness, and eurocentrism. Oh, and that tricky little subject of exile.

Exiled was Gustav Mahler, the notorious perfectionist Czech composer, of whom Lydia Tár is somewhat obsessed with. Mahler's relationship to Judaism has intrigued music scholars for sometime now. And how could it not? He was forced out of Vienna by the Third Reich, despite his conversion to Catholicism. He even married an antisemitic woman. Mahler, in fact, tried his damnedest to distance himself from his Jewish heritage. But alas, his compositions were tragically burned and his music disappeared from Concert Halls until Leonard Bernstein resurrected them sometime after the war. Incredible subject, then, for Field in which he can uproot the themes of cancellation and exile in regards to genius.

The languid pace of Tár confidently deals with it all and uses more obvious zeitgeist to distract from the deeper resonance of timeless themes. Lydia Tár is a character who can feel her own exile creeping in, with a paranoia that is punctuated by Field's masterful wide shots which leave his characters exposed, vulnerable. Field being an actor himself, understands the fundamentals of performance and I would venture to say no other film of the year offers such brilliant verisimilitude in character dynamics. There is an undeniable rhythm to each scene that isn't at the mercy of the cut. Field shows that he has nothing to hide pressed up against a character who might have everything to hide.

Despite the heady plot description, Field isn't even particularly worried about coming off as pretentious when his main character is the dictionary definition. That's because TÁR is at odds with itself. Field is playing the conductor and the musician. The past and the present. For example, he is more than capable of composing a scene with 10+ actors in a single take comprised of mostly masters, like a symphony. But he's also willing to show you that scene cut up and compressed on an iPhone comprised of singles. The interplay between the pretension of classicism and the casualness of contemporary art is constantly in question. He condemns both.

Field knowingly titles the film after the Hungarian maestro of slow cinema, Béla Tarr, as the references to the problematic nature of "Austro-Hungarian" composers features in the classroom debate oner. (It’s important to note that Bela Tarr’s wife went uncredited as director for many of his films). 

The entire Eurocentric conceptualization of "high art" is mirrored in Field's approach. The film is predominantly shot with wide lenses, long takes and extremely deep and sharp focus, like German maestro F.W. Murnau. And more closely mirroring his mentor Kubrick's visual proficiency, Field's use of telephoto lenses are sparse and deliberate. The content, however, is made up of more base fascinations: tawdry affairs, sexual promiscuity, a potential homicide and the aphrodisiac of power.

It is the allure of gatekeeping which defines every art circle, and, thus prescribes a self-destruction. How does one expect to gatekeep while keeping their circle of interest alive? And yet, it is gatekeeping which perhaps preserves the very essence of that which it protects. The contrast of these thorny ideas form in a kind of self-immolation of Lydia, with a little help from her colleagues.

Field’s screenplay mirrors Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler in more ways than one. The opening scene, a long biography of Lydia Tàr, reads like a eulogy at a funeral. It’s an open casket, and the audience is dressed in black, lurking in the shadows. Fitting given that the 5th opens with the infamous Funeral March. The whole symphony has a dark melancholic vibe. 

The second half of the film submerges into a paranoiac tone that resembles mostly post-Soviet cinema. A world where everyone is afraid of everyone, except, and perhaps not coincidentally by design, the Russian student who is a refreshing antidote to the rigidity of the Austro-Germanic setting. 

Despite being her debut, Sophie Kauer absolutely dominates with her performances as she eviscerates Lydia as a young protege Cellist. The metaphysical nature of TÁR works threefold: Olga as the new generation threatening the classicism of the form with her YouTube performance, Olga as the new budding genius who overshadows Cate Blanchett's performance while only being it for a fraction of the runtime, and the performer (the audience) defining the Maestro (director)'s work. Remember, Lydia selects her accompanying piece of music around her.

My wife is a Doctor of Ethnomusicology so my plebeian brain was granted more insight into this world. After Lydia explains to her daughter, "Not everyone can be a conductor, this isn't a democracy" before she has a lunch date with Olga, my wife hushed in my ear some historical context. Despite the Germanic more singular (fascistic?) nature of conducting, the USSR, in fact, had symphonies that were self-conducted by the musicians. They were conductor-less orchestras. Thus the line Lydia says with such authority, with her back turned on the audience, is a lie. In fact, her Eurocentric outlook on the world is her paradoxical undoing. Despite having a Doctorate in ethnomusicology of Indigenous cultures, she reenforces the European hierarchical modes because they define her. They give her purpose. And I am reminded by my partner that these paradoxes in Classical Music in academia aren't just common. They are taught and expected.

Being annoyingly fascinated with information, what floors me about TÁR is Field's absolute ruthless understanding of his subject, of the worlds he's building. He not only understands Mahler's 5th and the construction of the symphony, he is mirroring its contemporaries structures in the film. Field is not just showing a couple of scribbling palindromes of Tar into Rat on the cover of Lydia's notebook, he is inscribing the same kind of palindromic structure to the work. *Spoilers here* TÁR achieves what Tenet failed to do, it works forwards and backwards. One read of the film is in its linear fashion:

After confronting a student about the historical context of musicians, a revered and celebrated conductor self-destructs as she seduces a young musician in preparation for her final Mahler symphony, before being replaced by her male counterpart and ends up in the Indigenous parts of South Asia.

Another read is:

After studying the ethnography of South Asian indigenous cultures, a woman conductor replaces a revered white male counterpart, seduces a young Cellist and inspires her to perform a singular Cello Suite which defines both their positions, elevating Lydia to the greatest heights of the Berlin music scene and cementing her place in the most revered international centre stage (literally).

The palindromic nature of TÁR is in conversation with Mahler's own disciple, Alban Berg, one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Time is a considerable theme in this film, as outlined by Lydia in an almost essayistic way. But no one mastered time like Berg. His palindromic structures in music intended to address an alternate mode of temporality, which was inspired by Honore De Balzac's writings and the Viennese culture's fascination with the occult. This is most present in Honoré de Balzac's portrayal of androgyny and mystical philosophy in his novel, Séraphita. Alban Berg was so interested in deconstructing time with music that there emerged the term, "Berg's Time."

To achieve a kind of spiritual timelessness, Berg and Field, attempt to create a composition of palindromic proportions. The effort of freeing oneself from the shackles of time is as egomaniac as it is genius. These are inseparable elements in the film. It's important to note that another contemporary, Schoenberg, wrote an essay in 1912 dedicated to Lydia's mentor Gustav Mahler:

And this is the essence of genius--that it is our future. This is why the genius is nothing to the present. Because present and genius have nothing to do with one another. The genius is our future.

Thus Field, too, attempts to evade the trappings of time and, in fact, encourages a kind of non-linear read. The closing credits at the opening is a hint to his own structural defiance.

On the surface, the film promotes a kind of placid conversation around cancel culture, but is actually interested in a much richer conversation surrounding the nature of genius vs. prodigy. How one must stop the present moment in order to allow genius to emerge. The irony, of course, is that the film's setting Germany was obsessed with the celebration of genius in the 19th century despite genius not being recognized in its moment. Kandinsky, for example, was fascinated by the fact that Beethoven was isolated and essentially solitary in his genius and not accepted. This is why culture can't define greatness. We often dismiss it on arrival. Genius doesn't reveal itself until we are dead.

Hence, Field deliberately derides the Germanic structuralism that was commonplace prior to the Viennese " fin-de-siècle." He deliberately condemns the Eurocentric pretension of art cinema while absolutely adhering to the form. This is genuinely the most intriguing piece of TÁR for me. It's that Field understands the self-preservation required in being uncompromisingly austere, while instructing a completely different read. That the rigidity of classicism will be society's undoing and that the un-democratic nature, despite its elegance, of art will eventually be subject to the majority. It is both terrifying and relieving.

With TÁR, this is but one facet of many of the intricate pieces that Field meticulously builds into his story which compliment his own mentor, Stanley Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, too, was obsessed by Mahler and Brahms and that Eyes Wide Shut had a particular fascination/obsession with 19th century Vienna while attempting to defy the cultural mores of his time speaks to just how kindred these works are. Perhaps one of my favourite films of the past few years.

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