Denk dran, Johanna: der liebe Gott sieht alles.
Religious films, like religious people, are generally only interesting to the extent that they’re also kind of opaque. Tarkovsky, a devout point of reference, was known to qualify questions about his religiosity with a rejoinder of opacity: “[my faith] is not so straightforward, not so simple, and not so unambiguous.” The religious content of Tár, likewise, is not so unambiguous.
Tár is conceived publicly as a film about power and abuse, and its critical reception has thus dealt principally with how sensitively it manages these themes. The film should be imagined, then, as a specific case study in the nature of morality and the psyche of a fundamentally immoral protagonist; its thesis is an ethical one, which I accept—at least in the sense that Foucault called Anti-Oedipus a “book of ethics.”
In compiling the film’s religious points of reference, then, I’m hoping not merely or necessarily to arrange an argument for Tár as a “religious film” (I’m not sure such a thing exists, besides The Sacrifice) but instead to lay groundwork for the claim that the symbolic language used by the film to express its ethics and its representation of what we can call the “ethical experience” is fundamentally a religious one. Regardless of whether or not Lydia Tár is a religious character, then, I hope in the notes to follow to demonstrate how she experiences herself and her world through a religious set of symbols, and to speculate about what this symbolism can tell us about the film writ large.
Tár is not a horror movie—the neutrality of its “regressive aesthetics” (Brody) probably precludes any signs of genre. Still, I find it generative to watch the film through the horror idiom of ghost stories. My thinking around this is cribbed from a 1983 interview with Jacques Derrida, conducted under the auspices of a film produced by British director Ken McMullen titled Ghost Dance. Unlit pipe in hand, Derrida here gives voice to his conceit that film as a medium is essentially haunted: “the cinema is the art of ghosts,” he explains. “That’s what I think the cinema’s about, when it’s not boring. It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back.”
But Ghost Dance itself is quite boring; more problematically, it’s not very scary. To understand the relevance of Derrida’s ghosts to ghost stories I turn from McMullen’s film and remind us instead that the fantômes in question are fundamentally ethical figures, a point Derrida illustrates in Spectres of Marx ten years later using the example of Hamlet’s father to cast the ghost as a kind of trans-temporal witness:
The specter is not simply someone we see coming back, it is someone by whom we feel ourselves watched, observed surveyed, as if by the law: we are ‘before the law’, without any possible symmetry, without reciprocity. (120)
The ghost’s vengeance—as we know from horror films, ghosts are nothing if not vengeful—is in this sense an expression of the law, and of our own Raskolnikov-ish anxieties around the law unrealized and punishment unmeted.
Tár, the film, is haunted by Krista’s accusatory ghost before Tár the woman is: we sit behind her while watching the latter speak on stage with Adam Gopnik. Later, in the hotel, Lydia is troubled by Krista’s “trace” in the gifted book on the table. On the plane the next morning she disposes the book feverishly, a gesture repeated later when she deletes Krista’s emails. Lydia’s social downfall arrives as a culmination of Krista’s revenge, and is indeed organized and justified (as the Manhattan protesters’ signs indicate) in Krista’s name. This psychic association—Krista as the posthumous cause of professional collapse—is made explicit in the second of the two dreams, wherein a grotesque and distorted Lydia is embraced (attacked?) by Krista’s specter.
A foundational premise of Tár’s internal logic is thus that the dead aren’t really dead. Indeed: Krista’s presence in Lydia’s psychic life is felt most potently following the former’s suicide. Her earthly absence is a felt absence, experienced in the corners of Lydia’s and the viewer’s vision, only visible—lurking darkly in corners, especially in Petra’s room—in single, frozen frames. The lack of jump scares, alone, prevents the inclusion of Krista’s figure from designating Tár as a horror film, a ghost story. Throughout the film’s third act the protagonist is constantly looking over her shoulder. Guilt (over the suicide and, we imagine, the abuse) is experienced super-consciously as a kind of haunting.
What happened in the Amazon?
I don’t think it was an accident that that McMullen borrowed the name for his movie from an indigenous American ceremony. The “Ghost Dance” was practiced by the Lakota people under the pressure of colonial expansion. Drawing formally on a number of indigenous traditions, the intention of the dance was communication with the dead as a means of empowering colonial resistance and restoring Sioux land. Encoded in McMullen’s title is an assumption that native people have a kind of special access to the world of the dead, or else exist as representatives of that world.
Tár follows the same assumption. Throughout the film, Lydia’s experience of Krista’s ghost (read: the ethical experience of her own sin) is mediated through the symbolic vocabulary of indigenous culture.
Lydia Tár’s fieldwork among the Shipibo-Conibo of Peru flows like a subterranean river under the film from its start: the title sequence is accompanied by the recording of a young Lydia coaching a woman (the real-life Shipiba musician Elisa Vargas Fernandez / Reshin Wesna) to sing an indigenous song. We learn only in the next scene, from Adam Gopnik’s introduction, that Lydia “earned her Ph.D. in Musicology … specializing in indigenous music from the Ucayali valley in Eastern Peru, where she spent five years amongst the Shipibo-Conibo.”
Five years isn’t nothing. As far as one can tell, knowing little about her childhood in Staten Island, these five years in her mid-twenties represent in effect Lydia’s religious education—I hesitate, here, in my instinct to use the language of “initiation.” We can see on the wall of her Berlin studio (which is by all accounts truer expression of her psychic life than the enormous home she shares with Sharon) a photograph of herself seated behind a Shipibo shaman who blows smoke on the back of her head, his face decorated with a kené design. The same man is seen later, looking (glaring?) at Lydia and the viewer in the first dream sequence.
Todd Field describes the photograph in detail in his script; its inclusion shouldn’t be ignored. The Shipibo-Conibo word for “song,” icaro, is cited by Lydia in her New Yorker talk. The etymology of this word is striking, and links the Shipibo-Conibo conception of sacred music to the ritual use of ayahuasca. Icaros are thus the strict domain of the shamans, who sing them during ceromonies. Ethnomusicologist Susana Bustos writes:
Icaro is the generic name given to the songs utilized by the urban mestizo curanderos–or mixed race healers–of the Peruvian Amazon Basin and by some indigenous healers of this region during their ritual works . With no direct translation from native languages, Luna (1986) speculates that the word icaro would be a castilianism from the verb ikaray. In Quichua–a dialect of Quechua, the main stem-tongue of several ethnic groups of the Amazon Basin–the word means “to blow smoke” in order to heal. Interestingly, the Shipibo-Conibo people of Peru refer to their magic melodies as taquina, masha, and cusho, which means “to work by blowing.” In both cases, the use of the ritual song is linked to blowing or infusing breath or smoke.¹
The photograph of shaman blowing smoke does not imply mere ayahuasca use but, more importantly, a visual representation of the concept of “icaro” and thus an intimate association of spirituality and song. Lydia expresses this association in a borrowed Shibipo-Canibo ritual she performs upon entering the apartment, which according to Field’s script “involves candles and breath”—breathing, smoke, functions at the core of Lydia’s only recognizably religious practice. It shouldn’t be surprising when later, in promoting her book to a New York audience, Lydia “trots out the divinity bit” in describing her experience of music, to use Olga’s expression.
Steven Katz is a scholar of religion known for his “constructive” theory of mysticism, which insists that mystical experience up to its highest degree always happens through the particular language of a subject’s tradition. At the peak of their ecstasy, then, a Jewish mystic will borrow the symbolism of Ezekiel (for example) to interpret his experience.
Likewise, I will extrapolate, for our experience of sin, guilt, and repentance. If we are to assume that Lydia’s understanding of divinity and ethical reality is grounded in what she learned in the Amazon, then we can also infer that the guilt which haunts her following Krista’s suicide will be felt and expressed through the language of her (borrowed) tradition—that of the Shipibo-Conibo.
Indeed: the kené design sacred to Shipibo ayahuasca practice is seen in a variety of mediums, beginning with Lydia’s first encounter with Krista in her reception of the gift. All following appearances of the pattern, beginning with the metronome, occur after Lydia learns of Krista’s suicide.
There’s much to say in a general sense about patterns, pattern-making, and its function in religion experience. To my mind though, reductively, Tár’s use of the kené is twofold: it is (i) a recurring motif, in the musical sense, reminding Lydia and the viewer of the protagonists’ psycho-spiritual “point of origin” in the ceremony circles of the Amazon, and (ii) a kind of portal through which the souls of the dead are able to access and manipulate the world of the living.
In addressing this second function, its crucial to remember that ayahuasca use—to which kené is a visual accompaniment in the Peruvian context—has much to do with death and contact with the dead. The Quechan word “ayahuasca” itself alludes to this association, literally meaning something like “death-vine”: the word aya means “spirit, soul” or “corpse.” The subject of the ceremony is understood to undergo a cycle of death and rebirth, an experience attested to in most first-person accounts. Likewise, the contact with the spirit world granted under the influence of ayahuasca is thought to be a kind of premature allowance of access to the afterlife. One wonders if this is what Lydia has in minds when she insists to poor Max that the conductor must “obliterate” themself.
This idea of contact with the spirit world is gestured at by Lydia in the Gopnik interview: “past and present converge, the flip sides of the same cosmic coin.” In Tár this kené passage is travelled soberly, but alludes perhaps to Lydia’s memory of her ceremony experiences. The pattern in a general sense symbolizes Lydia’s religious framework for conceiving of the afterlife and, in a particular mode, signals her posthumous encounters with Krista’s spirit.
We see this notion of “return to origins” alluded to above in the first dream sequence, the final image of which finds a sleeping Lydia floating on the Amazon. A large black snake swims toward her bed, and suddenly, quietly, she catches on fire. Symbolically, very loaded.
Fire, as already mentioned, is linked to Lydia’s ritual practice. It also has a poetic, idiomatic function: she is “under fire,” and is indeed only a few scenes from being “fired.” (Dreams, as Jung in particular was keen to point out, have a habit of taking figures of speech literally.) Field’s script also specifies that the fire’s ignition should occur at the site of Lydia’s heart, indicating a kind of wish fulfillment, the sacred expungement of her romantic / erotic exploitation of others—her sin.
The snake, on the contrary, has a symbolic association particular to the Amazon. Shipibo mythology speaks of “Ronin,” a serpent spirit which travels on a kené map of the cosmos. The link between Ronin and kené is implied organically in the design of a snake’s skin—some traditions hold that Ronin is the divine source of the pattern. We can then speak of the water-snake as representative of the deity overseeing Krista’s encounters with Lydia, which better explains why the latter reacts to its image with such horror.
Moving away from clickbait film analysis, I read this image on a deeper level as Lydia’s regression to the site of her religious education and “initiation” (again, with caution) into correspondence with the spirits. It is precisely the ethical failure of her waking life and its corresponding consequences that thrusts her back to this point of origins and forces her to encounter her guilt through the the lens of an assimilated Shipibo symbolic vocabulary.
Men’s secrets, women’s terror
It’s the eleven pistol shots, a prime number—it strikes you as both victim and perpetrator. It’s wasn’t until I conducted it that I became convinced: we’re all capable of murder.
The concept of “men’s cults” and “men’s houses” developed as a shorthand in anthropology to describe societies of adult men organized around principles of ritual secrecy, homosexuality, and the terrorization of women.² The studies that best exemplify this structure were borne out of research in Melanesian cultures, most famously the Simbari men’s house of Papua New Guinea. Cases are also cited, however, in the tribal cultures of the Amazon, specifically the Mehinaku and Munduruku—not the Shipibo. The men’s cults in the Amazon are notable in the centrality of music to their esoteric structures: women in the case of the Munduruku are forbidden to see sacred flutes on pain of sexual violence, and the playing of these instruments is hidden from women and children.
Unlike the section above on kené, I will not argue here that Field or anyone else had in mind the men’s cults of the Amazon in the production of Tár. Nonetheless—and without suggesting that this is necessarily a framework that she assimilated from the Amazon—it may be useful to read Lydia’s pattern of abuse through the logic of these structures.
Critics of Tár have taken issue with the ascription to a female protagonist a pattern of behavior of which men, typically, are guilty. I would agree, but counter that Lydia’s male-coding precedes her abuse.
As we find her in the film’s opening scenes, Lydia makes a number of attempts—conscious or otherwise—to distance herself from her womanhood. We should resist, lazily, attributing this trait to her identity as a “U-Haul lesbian.” When asked by Gopnik about her experience as a female conductor, for example, Lydia’s only complaint concerns the use of gendered designations (“it is odd that people ever felt compelled to substitute ‘maestro’ with ‘maestra’”), and she expresses disgust over “gender spectacle.” See also, juxtaposed over Gopnik’s introduction, how when we see Lydia being fitted for a suit the only measurement the tailor takes is over her bust—a kind of symbolic mastectomy. She muses to Elliot about moving beyond the “quaint” gender specificity of their nonprofit. Finally, we could point to her constant attempts to emulate male conductors, made visually obvious in mimicking Claudio Abaddo’s portrait for the cover of her Mahler V record. This dissolution or transference of gender is implied already toward the end of her Juilliard speech to Max: “sublimate yourself—your ego, and yes, your identity.”
My suggestion is that this assimilation into masculinity (which, perhaps, she imagines to be a necessary prerequisite to her success as a conductor) is linked psychically to Lydia’s—or should we say Linda’s?—tendency toward secrecy and manipulation, but also to her abuse of women. I get this impression from her conversations with Andris, wherein Lydia seems to place herself in the canon of abusive male conductors (including, maybe, Andris himself). Krista’s exploitation and subsequent suicide is attributed, likewise, to her exclusion from a circle of male or masculinized initiates: “she wasn’t one of us,” Lydia explains to Francesca.
Classical music performance, for Lydia, is a kind of men’s cult. Following this logic the women outside of this society—especially, indeed, those vying for entry into its mysteries, attempting to “see the flutes”—are liable in her mind to be punished with violence and sexual terror.
There has yet to be a serious study, as far as I’ve seen, placing the Vatican’s child abuse scandal in continuum with a unified theory of sexual abuse at the hands of religious authority. I recognize similarities, at least superficially, with the manipulation of tantric tradition at the hands of buddhist leaders at Shambhala and elsewhere. Likewise, I wonder what can be generated by reading the fictional case study of Lydia Tár as an analogue to religious abuse.
As I’ll discuss more below, Lydia’s pattern of abuse is never witnessed in full in the film itself. We see her attempt to initiate it in the case of Olga, who—likely knowing her reputation well—denies her. Instead, we are given hints into the nature of Lydia’s abuse in three secondary examples: (i) her tirade against Max at Juilliard, (ii) her defense of Petra against Johanna, the bully, and (iii) her manipulation of the orchestra to include Olga’s cello solo. The latter two of these exemplify her reliance on manipulative secrecy, most chillingly expressed in her admonition to Johanna: “if you tell any grown-ups what I just said, they won’t believe you.” The parallels to Catholic child abuse are obvious, and reinforced in her final line to the girl: “God watches all.”
In all three cases, then, Lydia’s sadism is borne of the defense of her most treasured principles: either the protection of her daughter or of classical music. In the Juilliard case, Max is deemed worthy of humiliation following their failure to acknowledge the majesty of Bach. In the case of Olga’s solo, transparency with the orchestra and its bureaucratic processes is overstepped without a second thought, all for the sake of the divinity of music and the organization of the perfect live recording. My conceit here is that Lydia’s love of music (like her love of Petra) is sincere, and total: so totalizing, in fact, that it takes priority over the dignity of others—especially those whom she has power over: children, students, orchestra members. This prioritization of the transcendent ideal over human dignity represents the worst and most perverse tendencies of religious authority and finds analogy, I suggest, in the ongoing history religious abuse.
As mentioned above, Olga represents an interruption to Lydia’s cycle of abuse: her last attempt, and a failed one. I want to speculate that there is something supernatural and, perhaps, super-human about the nature of this character and her role as a catalyst of Lydia’s downfall.
Olga’s function as the protagonist’s object of attraction seems dependent on her simultaneous representation as Lydia’s polar opposite. Lydia is vegetarian, Olga is carnivorous. Olga cares little for decorum, for table manners and eloquent speech, and even less for Lydia’s vocation (she doesn’t remember who conducted one of her favorite pieces). Lydia, as noted above, has assimilated into polite androcentrism or androgyny; Olga is a feminist. But the most obvious example of this symbolic binary occurs when Lydia follows Olga into the dilapidated Neukölln building in which the latter is staying (or squatting) in order to return her teddy bear.
Lured by Olga’s siren-ish singing, Lydia ventures into the apparently abandoned basement, where she encounters a creature that Field’s script designates as a black German shepherd.
Why this animal in particular? Maybe an allusion to film’s historical undercurrents: the war, the wall, East Berlin police, and so on. For our purposes, I want to speculate instead that the dog represents Olga herself, transformed into a (carnivorous, persecutory) dog like a shapeshifting shaman. Olga’s eventual designation in the public eye as Tár’s “fresh meat”—note that idiom—is reversed in this scene, which others have already suggested straddles the border of fantasy and reality. Lydia perceives herself subconsciously as the prey of this beast, which we can say functions as the externalized spirit of her guilt.
While running up the stairs from her own culpability Lydia falls, resulting in a wound that leaves her quite literally “two-faced,” unable to reconcile her ego with her sin. The injury initiated by Olga’s dog-spirit is itself fundamentally a spiritual one. Pay attention, later, to the doctor’s diagnosis: “you’re somewhat crooked.”
Among the most bizarre moments in Tár’s critical reception was a line pushed by a number of Jewish publications (notably the Times of Israel and the JTA) describing the film as “surprisingly Jewish.” Largely ignoring the film’s actual subject—abuse—these articles lists Tar’s mention of the Israeli Philharmonic, the Nazis, Bernstein, and the omnipresence of (Catholic convert) Gustav Mahler as proof that it is “a film very much in conversation with Jews.”
Ignoring this strange free association, it’s worth discussing a Jewish concept which informs in the film’s religious logic and its approach to ethical life. “Teshuva” is a word which Lydia defines mysteriously as “the talmudic power to reach back in time and transform the significance of one’s past deeds.” This is a tremendously potent notion to someone who privileges the importance of time above all else; as she describes earlier in the Gopnik interview: “Time is the thing. Time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me.”
It’s noteworthy how, in her definition of teshuva, Lydia leaves out the word’s most common translation: repentance. Still, we wonder if hidden in Lydia’s habitual deceit and denial is a deep yearning for repentance, and one that leaps at the notion that she can in fact revise the past. This sheds further light on her reaction to, for instance, the ticking metronome—a symbol of her failed teshuva, her ultimate lack of control over time. Further, in her anxiety over the pace of the symphony, her insistence that certain sections are performed “messier.” Her secret, ethical urge for repentance is here sublimated into her control over the Mahler V.
In elaborating on the concept of teshuva, certain Hasidic sources insist that one not merely commit to never performing the sin in question again but, further, feel disgust at such a possibility. Of a righteous person, it is said often that he regards the potential for going against the will of God with repulsion. Likewise, in what I would call the film’s second climax, we witness Lydia running out of the massage parlor sickened at the recognition of herself choosing a young woman (“Number five”—and “the [Mahler] five is a mystery”) whose position in the parlor’s “fish bowl” resembles that of Olga in in the orchestra. If there is any suggestion of repentance—and perhaps I’m too generous allowing for that possibility—it’s indicated only here, in Lydia’s vomit.
- Bustos, Susana. The healing power of the icaros: a phenomenological study of ayahuasca experiences. San Francisco, CA: California Institute of Integral Studies, 2008.
- I credit the bulk of my understanding of this difficult topic to William Buckner. See his essay on the subject here.