Tears on Tears: A Career Built on the Tragedies of Others

Tár (Todd Field, USA, 2022)
Review by Franco Ferrarini, gastroenterologist, and film reviewer

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a world-famous conductor. Her fame is not just due to her achieving the prestigious position of being the director of the Berlin Philharmonic, but also for being the first female chief conductor reaching this position. However, she is not only interested in her own career: she spent 5 years with an indigenous tribe in Peru to study their music. Moreover, with the help of Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), an investment banker and amateur conductor, she founded the “Accordion Foundation” in New York to help young female musicians develop their skills and advance their careers as conductors. Her multiple talents include writing an autobiography titled “Tár on Tár” (Tár means tears in Icelandic).

 

 

This is Lydia’s bright side, which she brilliantly exhibits at the beginning of the film, during an interview with Adam Gopnick (himself) at the New Yorker Festival. But there is also a dark side. Lydia does not accept opinions and viewpoints different from hers, she is self-centered and unempathetic. Initially she exploits then ditches others on a whim, as seen in her relationship with the young musician Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote). After breaking up, Lydia expels Krista from the Accordion Foundation, ignoring Krista’s deteriorating mental status and impending risk of suicide. Sadly, Krista does commit suicide, leaving a note in which she accuses Lydia of professional misconduct. Published literature show that suicide is highly prevalent in artists with a risk 125% higher than the general population in the U.S.,1 especially in young age (e.g. Kurt Cobain, the leader of the American grunge band “Nirvana” who died at age of 27, and David Foster Wallace, American writer who died at the age of 46). There is no definite explanation for this phenomenon; one might speculate as possible causes the pressure of success, the fear of being unable to keep up with the public’s expectations and/or a loss of inspiration; unfortunately, sound scientific data on this subject are lacking.2

Krista’s suicide marks the beginning of Lydia’s fall from grace; she starts experiencing auditory hallucinations, Krista’s parents sue her for their daughter’s suicide, she is abandoned by her personal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), and her female partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) takes away their adopted child.

To make matters worse, an article in the New York Post labels Lydia as a sexual predator. In view of these accusations, the board of the Philharmonic orchestra replaces Lydia with Eliot Kaplan as a conductor of Mahler’s 5th symphony, a piece that Lydia loves most. She reacts violently and assaults Kaplan during the rehearsals. Banned from the music business, she ends up in the Philippines, alone conducting a small group playing the theme of a videogame.

Lydia’s character exhibits several traits of a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) which is characterized by grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. This disorder is estimated to have a 0.5-5% prevalence in the US population.3 Its etiology is unclear: besides genetic predisposition, adverse childhood experiences such as being neglected or being excessively praised have been suggested.4,5 Of the two subtypes of NPD, grandiose and vulnerable, Lydia belongs to the former as shown by her overt aggression, lack of empathy, and exploitation of others.

The film plot raises an interesting “which came first” question: is Lydia primarily affected by a NPD, hence she chose a job which satisfied her narcissism, or did she develop this disorder because of her job? A conductor’s task in an orchestra is quite different from a musician’s: whereas the latter just plays her/his instrument at their best and passively follows a conductor’s instructions, the former is a true leader with absolute power over musicians, a role traditionally assumed by male individuals. When Lydia states in an interview, “The reality is that from the very beginning… I know precisely what time it is, and the exact moment we will arrive at our destination together’’, she sounds almighty as a God, with the right to decide her musicians’ destiny even outside the concert hall. Krista’s fate suggests that this might not be an overstatement.

The film’s ending could be interpreted as a penance for Lydia’s wrongdoings or an affirmation of her love for music since she still finds satisfaction in conducting a modest music group with no suggestion of her earlier narcissistic attitude. Blanchett was awarded the Volpi Cup for best actress in 2022 at the 79th Venice Film Festival, a well-deserved award for her ability to portray authentically the diverse features of NPD.

 

References

[1] Stack S. Gender and Suicide Risk Among Artists: A Multivariate Analysis. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 1996;26 (4):374-9.

[2] Andreasen NC. The relationship between creativity and mood disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci 2008;10:251-5.

[3] Ronningstam E. An update on narcissistic personality disorder. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2013 Jan; 26(1):102-6.

[4] Caligor E, Levy KN, Yeomans FE. Narcissistic personality disorder: diagnostic and clinical challenges. Am J Psychiatry. 2015 May; 172(5): 415-22.

[5] Dixon-Gordon KL, Whalen DJ, Layden BK, Chapman AL. A Systematic Review of Personality Disorders and Health Outcomes. Can Psychol. 2015 May; 56(2): 168-90.

(Visited 94 times, 1 visits today)