February 2023


Todd Field's T谩r Decoded

Renate Stendhal

If Lydia T谩r, the music conductor in Todd Field's film T谩r were called Ludwig, the story of power abuse would go down as familiar,  without controversy. (The film was reviewed in these pages last month.) Famous conductors have recently been accused of sexual harassment of young artists, male or female, and three of them are mentioned in T谩r: James Levine and singer/conductor Placido Domingo were disgraced and banished from their power base at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit suffered a "witch hunt." So far, we've had no woman among this elite, but the fictional character of Lydia T谩r is so close to our contemporary imagination that people are turning to Google to learn more about her.

A good part of critics and social media went into hysterics over T谩r, accusing the director of misogyny. Public opinion rushed to condemn the protagonist Lydia as a "monster" and "predator," apparently eager to tar and feather her. (Ironies of word play run throughout the film: Lydia's autobiography "T谩r on T谩r," for example, is revengefully altered to "Rat on Rat" by her assistant Francesca, who rats on her in the end. The anagram option ART remains unspoken.

Art and beauty, as we know, are in the eye of the beholder, but so is misogyny, and Field intentionally provokes with his brilliantly conceived and executed fable. When he is asked  about all the "hot button" issues  in his film (MeToo, identity politics, "cancel culture," etc.), Field keeps a poker face, insisting that T谩r is not what it seems. He likes to use the term Rorschach as a key to the riddle. The term implies that you are looking at the movie, but what you see is your own reflection.


I watched T谩r repeatedly, running through different Rorschach interpretations, each time thrilled with the way the writer/director and his star Cate Blanchett keep the audience off-balance, ungrounded, in shock, delight, and doubt. How many films can you remember portraying a contemporary woman artist who is fully empowered and at the top of her (male-dominated) field? The excitement over such a proposition and accomplishment is inevitable. And the pain of seeing her go down in flames is hard to bear. I was intrigued by my passionate feelings for Lydia T谩r and my unwillingness to condemn her. I sensed a different meaning of the film was hidden in its ambiguities, mysteries, and disturbing uncertainties.

My intention with this article is not a retelling of the plot (which my colleague has already done), but to propose a different view, a Rorschach reading of T谩r that has been overlooked. In my view T谩r is predominantly a film about artistic inspiration and the artist's need for a Muse. In other words, Lydia T谩r's story is about the artist's struggle with the magical and demonic power of sexual passion.


Throughout the movie, Field has set traps and clues, and the way he sets up his story is significant: he makes Lydia T谩r irresistible. Her twenty-minute interview at The New Yorker Festival, featuring critic and author Adam Gopnik (playing himself) gives her an aura of unquestionable stardom. Cate Blanchet, as Lydia T谩r, answers with elegant ease, unfazed by the towering achievements Gopnik counts out for her. She seems charmed by the intelligence of the back and forth, without showing any feminine ticks like smiling, fawning, pretending humility, laughing at his (or her own) jokes, or fussing with her hair. She looks luminous, perfectly androgynous with her long straight hair, no makeup, in a cool pants suit. She casts a spell of perfect mastery over her audience.

For a full first hour of a film about music, there is no music, none of the orchestral tidal waves one might expect from Hollywood. Instead, the silence allows one to hear undertones of ambiguity. Assistant Francesca (No茅mie Morlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is lip-synching parts of Gopnik's laudatio like a prayer she knows by heart. Smart phone threads show that people are watching Lydia with innuendos of infatuation and malice. In the background, a woman with long red hair, seen only from the back, is watching too.


We soon learn  that the observer looming in the background is Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), an ex-lover who was a gifted mentee in Lydia's fellowship for young women conductors. We learn that Krista is sending increasingly desperate messages to Francesca, who is supposed to be a gate keeper, but is also Krista's friend and go-between. Krista is trying to get close to Lydia again, unable to understand why the affair is over and she is left in the cold. We later learn that both Krista and Francesca spent intimate time with Lydia in the Peruvian Amazon, where Lydia did a long ethnographic study of a remote tribe. We know that both were budding conductors, and most likely both were in love with Lydia. The difference is that Francesca , whom everyone in the orchestra calls "the girl," meaning Lydia's girl, tries to put her career before her feelings. Her ambition is to become Lydia's Assistant Conductor, the number two at the Berlin Philharmonic. Still, she also longs to be closer again to Lydia. These intermingled relationships tell a very different story than the classic MeToo drama of sexual harassment and predator behavior.


But back to the setup. It helps to know that the Amazon tribe, the Shipibo -Conibo, really exists and is known for using labyrinth patterns in its artifacts. They are also known for receiving songs by shamanic spirit connection. Such a song is heard right after the first brief scene of the film that shows a smart phone spying on the workaholic Lydia on a private jet. The text thread comments:  "what time did she get up this am" "i wasnt with her s was" "our girls an early riser isnt she" "haunted" "ha you mean she has a conscience" "maybe" "you still love her then." A moment later the credits start rolling over a black screen while we hear the birdlike voice of a girl or young woman singing in her tribal language. It's a long passage that leaves the audience listening in the dark, puzzling over what this might mean for the story to come. Next we see another glimpse of Lydia T谩r, the artist, preparing in the wings. (The scene returns two more times, denoting the radical changes in her state.) She is tense like a lion before the leap; her breath comes out in sharp, controlled sniffs; her fingers seem to whip away phantoms in front of her face, perhaps to clear the space for musical magic to take over.


These first few minutes offer a rich tangle of themes:  lovers' pursuits; musical inspiration through unknown forces, be they magic or erotic; the passionate effort  to connect with the Muse. Lovers' pursuits also dominate the next scene:

It's the reception following the New Yorker event. A pretty young woman (Sidney Lemmon), a fan, engulfs the star in suggestive flattery, and Lydia flirts right back. The fan asks if she is ever "overwhelmed" by the music she conducts. Oh yes, she gets overwhelmed! There are "those spots…" Clearly still on her "performance high" from the interview, Lydia evokes this state with an engagement that barely hides its erotic overtones: "It's not that I'm rushing, but oh, I just can't wait to get to that spot, and yeah, it does it, does it every time." The fan reacts with a sensuous shudder and Lydia carries on, enthusing over Stravinsky's Rite of Spring: "It's the eleven pistol shots – the prime number! – it strikes you as both victim and perpetrator. It's not until I conducted it that I became convinced we're all capable of murder! That's a fantastic handbag by the way" – in a sudden swoop from the heights of murder she fastens on the blood red handbag the fan is wearing.  Assistant Francesca rolls her eyes in comical (jealous?) exasperation and urges Lydia away to her next appointment. "Can I text you?" the besotted fan implores her. Ah, the dangers of texting!


The scene is a good example of Field's complexity and ambiguity: where is the perpetrator, he seems to ask, where is the victim? It takes two to tango.

Sharon, Lydia's spouse of many years (Nina Hoss), instantly notices the red handbag when Lydia returns to Berlin. Lydia lies about the bag and quickly adds, "Would you like it?" -- an expression of guilty generosity, or of the ease with which the one-night-stand, the woman and her gift, become irrelevant? And is Sharon's reply, "No. It suits you!" a tacit acknowledgment of something she is used to and shrugs off? Sharon holds the powerful position of concertmaster (first violin). The two are a high -power professional team, a couple who "has it all" (including an adopted little daughter who loves and trusts Lydia) -- all except sexual passion and time to look at the silences in their relationship.


This is, of course, where Krista Taylor comes in. The only sexual scene in the film is Lydia's dream of being seduced by Krista and surrendering in ecstasy. The powerful moment is shown in a slight variation in a trailer called "T谩r – The Teaser." Both times, it is striking to see Lydia, not in the pose of the seducer, harasser, predator etc., but the opposite. The director gives us food for thought: what must it be like for a powerhouse like Lydia, who controls a huge orchestra, a whole administration, boards and fellowships, to surrender to the spell of a gifted lover?


The additional materials and scenes of "The Teaser" are about the haunting effects of losing control – to indigenous magic and demonic spells mixed with eros. We are shown Lydia's face being painted by a tribal person with the lines of a maze, a design in black and white. We also see Krista, her face covered with the same labyrinth that returns to haunt Lydia. The labyrinth is also evoked in the repeated over-head shots of the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall with its extraordinary architecture and orchestra setup. And it poignantly reemerges in the final gift Krista leaves for Lydia in New York: a signed American first edition of Vita Sackville West's novel Challenge, with the same ominous labyrinth sketched over the cover page.


It helps to know that the book is a roman 脿 clef about Vita's passion for novelist Violet Trefusis, who used to threaten suicide whenever Vita returned to her husband. Vita and Violet collaborated on the book while they had fled to the south of France. Vita did return home in the end and finished the book, but withheld it from publication in England for fear of scandal. (I leave it to academics to puzzle out if this collector's item could have been signed by the author!)

This loaded gift has to be an allusion to Krista's dream of collaborating with her idol and writing some musical chapter together. When Lydia unwraps the book in the air plane toilet, away from Francesca's eyes, she tears out the labyrinth page, and, with trembling hands, stuffs the whole thing, wrapping and all, in the waste slot. The heroine of Challenge kills herself at the end – and a couple of days later, so does Krista.  


This is the elephant in the room of T谩r: passion can certainly be experienced as an overwhelming, obsessive labyrinth without an exit. Giving in to passion would have derailed Lydia's career and caused a scandal with Sharon and the Berlin Philharmonic – something Lydia had to avoid at all cost. At the end of the airplane scene, when Lydia gets back to her seat, she is shown obsessing over Krista Taylor's name, forming anagrams and partial words with its letters: "krait" (a highly venomous snake), "trol" etc. It seems like a helpless attempt to find a counter-spell to the haunting appeal of the lover who won't let go of her. Later, when the scandal erupts, she is challenged by a Philharmonic committee to reveal what Krista Taylor did to her. All she can say is that Krista fixated on her, trolled her, sent her weird gifts, tried to send her "signals." The worst she comes up with, and her most honest admission, is: "She vandalized my Wikipedia page to say she was my Muse."


Lydia  seems to be like many artists who draw inspiration from the "Muse" in the shape of a young woman. Her apparent dependance on falling in love to sustain her creativity has run dry with the end of the affair. We see her repeatedly at the piano, trying to compose her own music, and failing rather miserably. One surely has to wonder how Krista's persistent claim on her could warrant the brutal rejection Lydia inflicted on her by blacklisting Krista with a number of major orchestras. The cruel "ghosting" seems so over the top that it gives one pause. It seems a desperate, unhinged attempt to ban her completely from Lydia's professional orbit, as if any sign or appearance of Krista in the music world were a clear and present danger. What sort of threat, we must ask, could this budding conductor be to the all-powerful Lydia? What could create such a degree of panic? I can only find one psychologically convincing answer: the threat of temptation, the panic of getting pulled back into the same sexual spell, the ecstatic surrender we are shown. Lydia knows no better exorcism of this haunting desire.


Another desperate attempt to flee and forget is her flirtatious fondness for Olga (Sophie Kauer), the gifted new cellist who prefers men. We see Lydia running after this new ersatz "Muse" -- and running straight into another labyrinth, this time a literal underworld of a spooky squat house. The black giant dog threatening at the end of a hallway is perhaps a hallucination, a metaphor. He is the Minotaur, and there is no Ariadne to protect her: she stumbles out in panic and brutally falls. It's the fall from grace, the unavoidable and unstoppable downfall.


And finally, another haunting question that remains ambiguous and calls for decoding: why doesn't Lydia fight back against the tabloid scandal mongers, the rumor mill, the grossly  falsified video "evidence"? She of all people has the stuff it would take, as we are shown in numerous scenes where she is a power player, outsmarting her envious male rivals, putting competitors in their place, and always ready with an argument or retort that leaves them speechless. She is a runner; she pummels a punching ball at the Philharmonic gym to contain her fury. In short, she knows how to run with the wolves – and what a pleasure it is to watch her speed and brilliance. She could do what her real-life colleagues Placido Domingo, James Levine or Charles Dutoit have done: get a slew of top lawyers to deny the charges.

But interestingly, Lydia has no defense. She remains silent, not only because her not so loyal assistant Francesca has kept all the emails and turned against her. In her growing panic over the fallout of Krista's suicide Lydia has lost control and made unforgivable mistakes. If she stepped up to her own defense she would have to go into the details of her sexual passions and her betrayals of Sharon. She would have to deal with the true reasons for her brutal abuse of power against Krista and its tragic ending. She simply has no choice but to suck it up and start again from scratch, from the bottom.


I read that Todd Field and his star don't see the ending as all that depressing. I agree. It's certainly a fantastic irony to witness the first concert of her new career. Lightyears away from the ethereal world of classical music, she is now part of pop culture, serving a young generation "boldly going where no one has gone before" – a generation sufficiently affluent to afford live music with a full orchestra for its games.


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2023 Renate Stendhal
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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