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Irma Vep review Alicia Vikander is ‘pure evil but in a sexy kind of way’

Of all the disturbing scenes in Tár Todd Field’s movie about the downfall of a world-famous conductor I was most haunted by a frame of the titular character laughing. Lydia Tár Cate Blanchett is driving a young cellist named Olga home from a private rehearsal in Lydia’s apartment. By this point in the film we have spent nearly two hours closely observing the artistic rigor tasteful luxury and careful self-promotion that characterize Lydia’s daily life. Her movements are agile and precise. Her words hang in the air sonorous with authority. She appears to possess the inner peace of someone with a steady spiritual practice and invokes Jewish mysticism to discuss her work as an interpreter of music. She is also egomaniacal and inaccessible and she evades accountability in even the most trivial interactions. At home with her partner and her grade-school-aged daughter who addresses her as Lydia she often seems to be somewhere else.

The audience too is held at arm’s length we know more about Lydia’s professional credits than about her origin story. She does not fit the mold of an openly tyrannical boss or an irate bullish tycoon. She is more chillingly able to control her surroundings through the artful subtlety of a cold stare a warm hand or the rebuffing of a too-needy request. By the time she drives Olga home Lydia’s worse transgressions are catching up with her. She seems to have a habit of taking her young female acolytes as lovers and now a jilted former mentee Krista has died by suicide. But Olga sitting shotgun in Lydia’s car is rosy-cheeked disarmingly unmannered holding a stuffed animal. She playfully pushes the toy in Lydia’s face and laughs. Lydia caught off guard laughs back.

Watching her mask momentarily fall I felt a flash of recognition. This was the expression of temporary abandon I’d seen on the faces of male artists enlivened by relationships with younger women. It was not simply the face of a predator seeking renewal from young flesh but the face of an older artist suffering a creative impasse and therefore an identity crisis. Through the attentions of an unjaded young woman the artist momentarily recoups a lost memory of unbridled joy. You can see a version of this face on Woody Allen’s comedy-writer character in Manhattan beside himself at the childlike wisdom of Tracy the seventeen-year-old he makes his girlfriend.

You can imagine it reading Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World when a fiftysomething J. D. Salinger tells the prodigal author then nineteen years old You know too much for your age. Either that or I just know too little for mine. Both of those works feature men telling young women how corrupted they will be by the outside world and by their creative fields in particular. The men don’t acknowledge that they too are corrupting forces. Perhaps however unconsciously they even relish the chance to be the first. I recognize the face from my own life from situations in which I felt chosen thanks in part to works like Manhattan which make the exchange between a teen girl’s youthful energy and an older man’s knowledge seem as symbiotic as any relationship found in nature.

The face on Lydia is tragic because it suggests that at the apex of her career she can surrender to unselfconscious expression only through interactions tinged with predation. Conducting has become inextricable from her sexually charged relationships with members of her orchestra and from the godlike power she feels at the podium. Describing the feeling in a staged interview with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik playing himself Lydia says of her role as a conductor You cannot start without me. I start the clock. Through conducting she can stop time reset it accelerate it. She can also ignore phone calls delete incriminating e-mails lie to her family obstruct careers manipulate institutions change her name and create as artists do something that didn’t really exist before Lydia Tár.

She’s crafted herself in the image of great men and insists that her gender hasn’t inhibited her career in any way. When intimidating her child’s bully in the schoolyard she introduces herself as Petra’s father. By creating a character who can’t be written off as another predictably problematic man Tár draws our attention to how Lydia learned to become one. And by following Lydia closely the film relieves the audience of a neurotic cultural obsession with the artistic legacies of real-life powerful figures focussing instead on their tools. In lieu of asking Can you separate the art from the artist? or But what will happen to these poor bad men? Tár asks What does power look like feel like not only within an institution but within an individual psyche?

It didn’t occur to me until I left a showing of Tár that the movie does all sorts of things that I’d normally find intolerable in a narrative about a powerful person accused of sexual misconduct. The camera stays glued to Lydia using long takes and few establishing shots and rarely straying from her point of view. The victims are barely fleshed out or else absent altogether their accusations only referred to in passing their testimonies unheard. We catch only the first lines of Krista’s desperately confused e-mails.

One of the few characters to challenge Lydia directly—a BIPOC pangender-identifying Juilliard student who struggles to connect with Bach because of his misogynistic life—is not given the time to make a full or coherent argument for a more inclusive canon. But making the forces that threaten Lydia’s stature as muted to the viewer as they are to her turns out to be a highly effective way of conveying the insidiousness of power. Lydia does not have to contend with other people’s humanity—nor offer hers to them. The film immerses viewers in Lydia’s world of extreme control which is to say extreme isolation.

Lydia passes through the first half of the movie in an environment of near-silence except when there is music. But the luxury of quiet can’t be sustained and the outside world inevitably creeps in through sirens and untraceable screams. Two tones that she keeps hearing through her apartment walls have made their way into a composition eventually she is forced to discover that they are the sounds of her neighbor’s medical device. One person’s suffering is another’s artistic spark. After Krista’s parents pursue legal action against Lydia based on allegations of abuse included in a suicide note Lydia is soon surrounded by the more banal noises of a life without a private car. The luxuries on display at the film’s beginning are remembered as bad omens signs of insulation from reality rather than markers of comfort.

I did not feel that such immersion was intended to evoke empathy for Lydia at least not unquestioningly. Roger Ebert famously likened movies to a machine that generates empathy. Tár generates something more like empathy horror. A crowd at the Venice Film Festival reportedly cheered as Lydia dressed down the Juilliard student identifying with her exhaustion in the face of cultural sensitivities and perhaps instinctively siding with a person whose greatness the film has gone to great lengths to establish. I wonder how the audience felt once it became clear how far she’d gone to silence others. The film itself is masterfully made aggressively sleek confident and clever. I delighted at its niche cultural references thought I saw Cate Blanchett commune with the divine and even somehow cried. But through all it reveals about the cost of artistic greatness and the ruse of prestige Tár casts even its own achievements as untrustworthy.

I grew up worshipping artists and the exchanges they have with their audiences. My dad is a high-school English teacher who shares and interprets canonical works my mom is an artist who weaves tapestries inspired by sacred Jewish texts and traditions. When I started writing I saw myself in part as a professional fan. Through a fashion blog that I started when I was eleven years old and then through an online magazine that I created for teen-agers I was able to interview artists I admired siphoning their wisdom believing that creative ability and strength of character went hand in hand. The magazine Rookie celebrated fandom in all its forms. Our writers wrote of artists as queens kings gods goddesses dream B.F.F.s. Our readers sent in photos of homemade shrines to their heroes. In regular columns famous artists gave our readers life advice.

I delivered talks at universities and lecture halls arguing that the fan’s capacity for enthusiasm was as holy as the works of art we lived by. I would quote a passage from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey comparing a performer’s audience to Christ Himself a righteous entity worthy of serving. I found similar comfort in a scene from Manhattan in which Woody Allen’s character asks what makes life worth living then rattles off a mix of cultural touchstones before landing of course on Tracy’s face. At nineteen I wrote in a private journal that the knowledge that anything I feel has already been expressed in a work of art was my version of feeling watched over by a higher power.

I still value the sanctity of the artist-audience exchange but it worries me when conversations about artists’ misdeeds end up centering on it. When an artist is revealed to have abused someone we ask Can we still like their art? Is it still O.K. to? These questions treat every individual’s response to art as a morality test. They confuse optics with ethics muddying a useful distinction between reacting to a work of art—an act that after all is something visceral and involuntary like laughter—and materially supporting it. Discussions around accountability and practical consequences for abusers get sidelined in favor of abstract exercises around taste and identity. Justice appears to have been served merely because a legacy has been tainted. I do not mean to suggest that art works can be divorced from social context only that our reactions to them are not in themselves public statements acts of harm or good deeds.

Lydia also monitors her own and others’ reactions to art albeit for virtues of a different kind. You’ve got to sublimate yourself your ego and yes your identity she says to her students with disdain imagining that they are constricted by arbitrary rules of their own making whereas she approaches music from a neutral place of surrender. Her exhortation is ironic though given how much she has invested in her own persona–her identity you could say–and the career she’s built on it. She may deride the idea that a student would attend Juilliard for its brand but the school’s brand helps to uphold her own. Tár is less interested in explaining the relationship between genius and cruelty than in showing how both collaborate with power—as derived from the brands the institutions and all their virtuous pretense—to create a shield against accountability.

The urge to protect the artist-audience exchange can form part of the shield too. I used to worry that writing about my own experience with an abuser might cause some fans to have a crisis of faith. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how traumatic experiences with artists or even just secondhand knowledge of their wrongdoing can damage one’s relationship to a medium. Art is a refuge. What do you do when you need to seek refuge from your refuge? In Tár Lydia undermines Krista’s career in classical music and possibly her love for it too. But the film also made me think for the first time about how the act of creation is transformed for artists facing fallout for their misdeeds. It was devastating to see how music—Lydia’s safe space though she would surely scoff at the term—became tainted for her. For once though I harbored no doubt that the loss was the fault of the artist alone.

Maybe it speaks to my own biases that I never once felt that the film cast doubt on Lydia’s victims as others including The New Yorker’s Richard Brody did. Krista’s limited presence in the film is troubling for its unknowability. We don’t hear her voice her face is always obscured. In other thrillers such an absence might be used to build suspense until the traumatic event is finally seen in full Tár instead leaves the audience only with the amorphous aftermath of sexual violence. The flashes we see of Krista’s pained ignored e-mails to Lydia’s assistant reminded me of something a friend once said of her rapist His career existed on my silence and good grace.

The events of recent years have opened new paths to legal and financial redress for victims who can afford to pursue them. But those paths often involve public humiliation if you press charges or a further commitment to silence as settlements are typically only granted on the condition of confidentiality. When I thought about pursuing a settlement against my own abuser I learned that it would require deleting even my private writing about what happened. I’ve chosen instead to write around my experience in essays like this one leaving out names or identifying details. This approach is not a model for justice but it at least grants me some creative freedom. Perhaps I like Tár ’s gestural treatment of abuse because it resembles my own approach I don’t need to give you details. I’m telling you that it happened. This has required me to imagine the shape of my experiences beyond the confines of legal testimony or journalistic description. It has also allowed me to focus on power’s tools rather than on the moral character of a person unknowable to me.

It might be most accurate to say that watching Tár I felt my own sense of identification divided between Lydia and her victims. After all I was never as powerless as her mentees. I have a platform. I compose works of writing. I’ve answered questions before crowds of invisible faces in rooms full of blond wood. As long as I’ve been a professional fan I have also been self-inventing modelling myself after the people I’ve interviewed even updating handwritten lists of people to JUST BE. At Rookie I edited writers younger than me and acted as the boss of editors decades older. Instead of going to college I pursued acting in New York and surrounded myself with mentors in theatre and publishing. Now onstage and in front of cameras I watch my movements have an immediate effect on hundreds of people. In these spaces and at my desk I get to feel removed from the drudgery of the everyday suspended in seemingly more important eternal questions. I too can stop time.

I also know firsthand how the coddling of the entertainment industry can erode one’s perspective. Lydia reminded me of actors who’ve been fired from projects for harassment but insist that they couldn’t possibly have offended anyone because they’ve been on sets for decades. They would know by now if their jokes or touches had ever made anyone uncomfortable they say. This argument strikes me as absurd in part because I’ve seen how on-set hierarchies in particular distort actors’ ability to read social cues. When you’re the star of the show nobody can afford to correct your behavior there’s not even a penalty for being late. I’ve been embarrassed on set to learn that I don’t know my lines as well as I think I do then to notice that the director has no choice but to assure me that I’m killing it while anxiously checking the time. Equally disconcerting is being surrounded by hundreds of crew members and background actors who are instructed not to look at or talk to the cast to only mime speaking when the camera is rolling. It is sort of your job as a performer to have Main Character Syndrome and after years in such an environment maybe the condition becomes permanently embedded.

Lydia is limited not only by years of coddling but by artistic ideals that exalt individual greatness and a mythic level of purity. She scorns her students as unfeeling robots and finds it depressing that great composers imitated one another as though any artist can or should be entirely original. She is probably ashamed to be primarily an interpreter rather than a creator of original works unless you count a new book bearing the silly title Tár on Tár A Conversation which judging from an excerpt sounds an awful lot like a Leonard Bernstein speech. Embodying a persona protects Lydia from her own vulnerability for a while. In the end however she cannot bend other people’s experiences of her to fit her image. She cannot delete all the evidence. She cannot escape a younger generation’s system of accountability—and years of rarefied success have left her unable to withstand her own defenselessness. Her devotion to art did not translate to genuine self-respect a set of ethics nor the ability to take responsibility for her actions. In the grand tradition of the toxically masculine she lapses into violence attacking another conductor onstage and securing her own demise.

Mary Gaitskill describing Americans’ tendency to treat suffering as something to be triumphed over writes that because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured because indeed some things cannot be triumphed over at all the ‘story’ must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending. I sometimes fear that attempting to write about My Experience only makes me better at telling a story. I worry that writing around it indulges a triumphalist impulse—that it caters to readers’ preferences for a mature work of self-reflection one that doesn’t seek redress one that comes couched in cultural criticism and appears in a respectable publication. I don’t mean that publicly acknowledging an experience of sexual abuse places me in a position of power. I mean that I see the door to another room of blond wood promising something like safety. This safety may be as illusory as Lydia Tár’s success is for her.

Although Tár stays with Lydia in almost every frame the film draws one’s attention to the many players contributing to the success of someone like her. It opens with the closing credits played in reverse confronting the viewer with labor generally not acknowledged until audiences are leaving the theatre. The interview with Gopnik which begins the film is intercut with snippets of Lydia ordering a custom-made suit. We see not only the seams of her self-invention as she fans out a series of records featuring dead white men onto her floor and chooses one to emulate but also the suit’s convoluted execution carried out by assistants tailors and seamstresses.

After Lydia has been deposed in the lawsuit brought by Krista’s parents—fired from both Juilliard and the Berlin Philharmonic dropped by her team even forbidden from seeing her daughter—we find her alone in an unspecified Southeast Asian country. One night she goes to a spa to get a massage where a receptionist tells her You just pick a number. Lydia turns to face rows of made-up girls sitting in a rounded formation that echoes that of an orchestra. One girl looks up and stares her placement close to that of Olga’s back at the Philharmonic. The arrangement looks a lot like Lydia’s relationships to young mentees if those relationships were stripped of all their pretension and artistic purpose. Finally confronted with the transactional exploitative nature of her modus operandi Lydia rushes outside to vomit in the street.

Mira Harberg Alicia Vikander an actor zips through Paris in a car after the premiere of her latest movie an inane sci-fi blockbuster. I thought it was kind of OK says her assistant Regina. Mira laughs in disbelief. At least it’s the final premiere and it has brought her to France away from a failed relationship and where she is about to start shooting a new project. Something worthy and arty and European – a remake of the real 1915 Louis Feuillade serial Les Vampires.

Irma Vep Sky Atlantic/Now is a fun spiky eight-part series that is so meta it makes my head hurt. Mira’s character in the arthouse remake is Irma Vep a velvet-catsuited villainess and part of the criminal gang known as the Vampires – pure evil but in a sexy kind of way as René Vidal Vincent Macaigne the director explains to her. Irma Vep also happens to be the real-life name of a 1996 film by Olivier Assayas who has written and directed this show. Here René also made an earlier Irma Vep film and married its star as did Assayas who married the actor Maggie Cheung who played Vep in his 1996 film. Yes meta all the way. So Assayas has made a TV remake of his own film which was about making a remake of the 1915 original with a director named René Vidal in both who is based on Assayas himself. I don’t even know if I’ve got that right but it doesn’t really matter – it stands up without having to know the history – except to raise the idea that it’s all very clever.

Devon Ross as Regina in Irma Vep with angular hair and expert makeup.
It mostly is. It has grand ideas expressed in entertaining ways about the difference or not between art and content and the jaundiced pall money casts over everything. René the struggling auteur is determined to stay true to Feuillade’s vision but the cosmetics corporation financing the project is more interested in making Mira the new face of their perfume brand. Mira wants to be taken seriously even if her agent is trying to get her to cash in and become the female Silver Surfer.

I don’t have a high tolerance for films or in this case TV programmes about film-making but Irma Vep has appealing bite – mainly of the hand that feeds it with all the trashing of prestige TV the characters do. René refuses to accept he is making television. It’s a film he quibbles admittedly a bit long divided into eight pieces. His cast sit around in a later episode debating the merits of cinema versus the streaming giants and the obsession with ratings and marketing even the shift in the balance of power towards rabid online fans. Because we have platforms they need content so you stretch the content says Edmond one of René’s leads. You adapt to the market – that’s the opposite of art.

Is René remaking Irma Vep because the industry is now so reliant on reboots or is it because he still has as his therapist suggests unresolved issues following his divorce from its star? Regardless it’s a thankless shoot dealing with unbiddable actors who can’t understand their characters’ motivations or are angling for sex scenes complete with intimacy directors this being 2022 as a way to get close to former lovers. The supporting characters – and cast – are wonderful from the smart film-obsessed Regina Devon Ross who wants to be a director but whose job is to nanny Mira to the seen-it-all-before costume director Zoe Jeanne Balibar and the obscene and scene-stealing crack-addicted German actor Gottfried Lars Eidinger.

It’s a visual treat for those of us who got hooked on chic Frenchness via Call My Agent even Emily in Paris gets a wry namecheck here. And it is funny particularly René’s farcical film shoot. When we’re thrown a self-referential bone – a Sonic Youth T-shirt here the band’s Thurston Moore has done the music an actor from the 1996 film popping up there – you can either feel clever for spotting it or view it as Assayas skewering the tiresome trend for referencing everything. There are some boring scenes and even bad ones – those between Mira and her former assistant and lover Laurie who is now married to Herman the blockbuster’s director are marred not only by lack of chemistry but also by some painful exposition. By this point you might be wondering if Assayas is having us on. Entertaining disorienting at times annoying Irma Vep is like being tickled.

 

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