Once again it looks like the pairs of films I review in each of these Oscar posts have some kind of theme; for this one, it looks like gender politics carries the day.
Lydia Tár, when we meet her, is at the top of her game – she’s a pre-eminent composer and conductor, first female director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and founder of a scholarship meant to support other women entering her field. She discusses all of this in the first scene, a lengthy interview with the editor of The New Yorker; she also plugs her upcoming book, and her impending recording of what will likely be her masterpiece – conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. She’s erudite, assertive, and confident. However, over the course of the film we start to see the warts behind that carefully-constructed image – and watch as they lead to a considerable downfall.
A couple of Tár’s mis-steps concern her relationships with two of her assistants – both other women, and one of which, it is implied, is romantically obsessed with Tár. At least that’s what the rumors are, although the romantic angle is more subtextual – most of the assistant Krista’s communications with her are begging for a position as a junior conductor. But Tár has refused, instructing her current assistant Francesca to delete and ignore all contact from Krista. Francesca is also refused a similar position despite exemplary service as Tár’s assistant, and starts to question Tár’s judgement herself – especially when a new cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic catches Tár’s eye and is awarded the honor of performing a cello solo during the upcoming concert. Tár’s wife Sharon, a violinist with the Philharmonic, notices as well, leading to conflict at home, just as the rumors about Tár’s conduct really start to swirl.
Many reviews categorize this as a condemnation of “cancel culture”, and how Tár is unfairly treated for her actions; others see this as a cautionary sort of “Me Too” tale. I’m not sure I agree with either perspective – for me, it was more a case of Tár’s ego and hubris finally tripping her up. Her whole persona is very tightly controlled and carefully constructed, to the point that the slightest mis-step brings the whole thing down. She’s simply too over-confident in her own perspective and doesn’t have the slightest idea how she may be coming across to others. Early on, there is a terrifically uncomfortable scene where she’s giving a Master Class at Julliard and one of the students dismisses Bach has “just another white male cisgender composer” and states that he prefers to work with other composers. Tár’s takedown of this perspective – and of the student – is so pointed and specific, targeting some of the student’s obvious insecurities in addition to his opinion, that he storms out of the class. It’s obvious that Tár thinks she’s simply championing the idea that one should focus on the art and not the artist – and she’s not wrong about that – but she is completely unaware of the vitriol in her tone, and how the power of her position gives her words extra weight. She’s focused so much on keeping her own house of cards up that she can’t see what she’s doing to others around her.
And that’s why I think I ultimately was lukewarm on this. Tár is in every single scene in this film, and Cate Blanchett embodies so well that I actively disliked her at many points.
In contrast to the tale of a solitary unlikeable woman who isolates herself, we have the story of a group of women who come together and – just by talking – support each other as they try to make a gruelingly difficult decision.
Sarah Polley both directed and adapted this film from an existing book – and it is a masterwork in adaptation. The book itself (by Miriam Toews) was inspired by a true and terrible story – a series of rapes which took place at an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia. A group of men in the colony were drugging women (and girls) in their sleep and raping them; they would wake with bruises and blood on their thighs, but their complaints were dismissed for years until one of the men was finally caught in the act. The colony elders knew they were out of their depth and turned to the local authorities to handle the situation. In the book – and the film – the rapists were arrested, and the rest of the men travelled en masse to the jail – a two-days’ journey – to post their bail. As they left, they warned the women that they expected them to forgive the men when they returned. But – they were still leaving the women and children alone for two days, giving the women a chance to discuss whether they really would forgive the men, or whether they would do something else – and if so, what.
The victims’ discussion is the bulk of the movie. And – it is damn hard to write a screenplay in which nothing happens but “a bunch of people talking” without your work either being boring or polemic. (I speak from experience, and have the VHS of the anti-nuke movie a friend and I made in high school to prove it.) But Polley’s script is a masterwork in using the dialogue to introduce you to the characters’ various perspectives, pains, traumas, fears, hopes, conflicts, and strengths. We do see glimpses of the aftermath of different characters’ attacks – but only in flashes, and sometimes so subtly that we don’t realize what we saw until a couple minutes later, when they are saying something.
And each woman is given the space to have her own response and handle her trauma in her own way; one woman bitterly wants everyone to downplay the incidents, another suffers panic attacks. Still another is more fearful for her child than herself. Another woman is now pregnant. Another woman has chosen to live as a man instead. There’s one woman who’s downplaying her own attack so much that I didn’t even know she’d been attacked for half the movie; she’s an older woman who occasionally wrestles with uncomfortable dentures, and midway through the film there’s a moment which hints at a shocking reason why she has them in the first place. I haven’t read the original book, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is – so I’m not sure whom to applaud for a story that allowed each of the characters their own space and experience, and depicted how group talk can lead to healing. I was especially impressed by how the story also addressed how the men were victims of a sort as well – trapped in a mindset that lead them to commit such acts in the first place. Not that they shouldn’t be accountable, the women hasten to add – but maybe they deserved pity instead of anger. ….And maybe from a distance.
There is one lone man in with the women – the colony’s schoolteacher, who’s been appointed to take minutes for the women (all of whom are illiterate). He tries to stay out of the discussion, but a time or two is asked his opinion. He’s also fond of one of the women, a childhood friend now pregnant from her rape. Much of the film seems to set him up as the “lone kind man” in the colony – but I couldn’t help thinking we were supposed to think he’d also had some sexual trauma in his own childhood. He has a brief monologue about the character of boys in their early teens, during which he argues they have an energy and vivacity and curiosity about life and sexuality that sometimes outstrips their compassion and thinking, but they can be taught more proper behavior. It’s very possible I’m reading something into this, but I got the sense that this character had been assaulted by a schoolmate as a child as well.
I also appreciated how religion itself wasn’t depicted as the Root Of Evil in the story. The women differentiate between God and their Faith, and the laws that flawed people made in God’s name. The flawed people were the problem, not God; and repeatedly, the women turn to their faith to console each other, singing hymns to help each other through a panic attack or using a parable to illustrate a point. Religion can be a very powerful and personal thing, and even though it may be foreign to us, it makes absolute sense that these women who have been kept isolated and illiterate by their religion would nevertheless turn to their religion for consolation and guidance.
This is honestly the first of this year’s films I’ve seen that comes close to dethroning Everything Everywhere All At Once in my head; however, I think it’s more deserving of a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.