Bad Education: Tár And The Sadistic In The Artistic

This century has offered a lot of challenging and upsetting treatises on power and abuse in conservatoires and academies, with four striking films offering a gateway into Tár, finds Rory Doherty

In the arts, discipline is everything. Without it, you can’t reach the diligence or stamina needed to turn natural talent into something matching your ambition. Specialist academies and apprenticeships are still the first port of call to set up young talents for a life in the arts – a tradition increasingly questioned when access to them is so limited. All artistic institutions try to challenge their students, and all who enrol are expected to put their faith in mentors. But when unconventional teachers exploit their impressionable students, it’s nearly impossible for young people to vocalise mistreatment – four 21st-century films showcase this abuse and its consequences in equally poetic and distressing ways.

Todd Field’s Tár fixates on the psychology of a tightly disciplined abuser, and when viewed alongside Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, the film’s unspoken violence becomes agonising. The teachers in these films defend their abuse as a necessity for reaching artistic genius, centralising themselves in their pupil’s quest to become great. All four stories of abuse are concerned with gendered dynamics operating within rigid, protective institutions, and each mentor possesses an unshakable sense of discipline that ends up contributing to the moment where they snap.

While the über-accomplished composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is an openly queer woman, she resists being categorised by her identity – while still emotionally abusing vulnerable young women the same way so many powerful men have before. Whiplash’s Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), for example, with his insults, screaming and chair-throwing, showcases such unsubtle symptoms of untempered machismo that it borders on comical. For suffering student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a world away from his own meek, timid father – a family member barely heard over Fletcher.

Andrew keeps returning to Fletcher’s domineering, belligerent authority because he dangles the possibility of glory behind his abuse – this is all worth it because (trust him) he knows how to make an artist truly great. This manufactured dependency woven into the teacher’s doctrine is a key way abusers convince their victims to stay close. There isn’t a moment in Tár that Lydia isn’t aware of how idolised her intellect and accomplishments are, allowing her to easily push the limits of unorthodox, damaging teaching methods. As she says, to become great, “you gotta sublimate yourself, your ego, and yes, your identity.”

While Tár would likely think Fletcher’s methods are somewhat amateurish, even she would struggle up against the coven in Suspiria. In the “German Autumn” of 1977 West Berlin, a fascistic order of witches use the young women in their dance academy for their own supernatural purposes – including hexing their expressionist dancing so it ritualistically mutilates their victims. Tár and Suspiria share a lot of similarities, not just in setting and style (or, depending on your reading, invocations of the supernatural), but also in their austere depictions of systemised abuse.

The violence committed by Tár before the film starts (gaslighting a former protégée to the point of suicide) is rarely directly addressed, but clearly lingers on the mind of her assistant, her wife, and those in her many expansive circles. When Tár announces the orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s 5th will be accompanied by a cello solo – just as an alluring young cellist has joined the orchestra – fear flickers over the faces of the silent musicians, a fear that remains unvoiced until enough of Tár’s armour has come unfastened.

Suspiria addresses institutional silence in a supernaturally playful way, as the coven frequently converse telepathically to avoid suspicion or detection. The instructor, Madame Blanc, covets power from the sickly Madame Markos and administers physical attacks on the young dancers as well as psychic ones – it’s an accepted fact amongst the dancers that everyone suffers regular distressing nightmares. Blanc and the other witches do not pressure or manipulate their students to become subservient to their cause (that is, witchcraft and not dance), they instead violate them to strengthen their exclusive order. The close-knit, elite world of arts academies allows them a heightened secrecy, and the only way to break their dominion is to simply possess more power.

When it’s revealed that young protagonist Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is really Mother Suspiriorum, a more powerful entity than any of the coven, she retaliates her instructor’s sadism with instant, violent death. Blanc is punished, but by the system she served – the hierarchy of witchcraft – has not been radically reformed, rather reinforced. As Amelia Merrill argues for Bright Wall Dark Room, Susie may become witchcraft itself, “but she sacrifices her own interests for the good of the state.”

Like Blanc, the structures Tár built to serve her greatness will continue on without her – seen in a pitch invasion-style attack on an inferior conductor who replaces her for Mahler’s 5th. To take away systematised powers is a fatal, maddening blow to abusers, as they have internalised the institutions that have up to this point shielded and enabled them.

Suspiria ends in a slightly truncated mad rush of a climax; instead, The Piano Teacher best mirrors Tár’s extended, painful breaking of a sadistic mentor. In Haneke’s film, Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is a militant and cruel piano teacher, living with a demeaning and manipulative ageing mother, and suffers sexual repression that manifests in a variety of voyeuristic and masochistic fetishes. The abuse she doles out, the abuse she receives from her mother as well her self-harm are all cause and effect for each other, a self-generating cycle that is only interrupted by the intrusion of an unplaceable new student. Despite Erika denying the romantic advances of the talented but arrogant Walter (Benoît Magimel) – a coupling that would have uncomfortable overtones regardless of Erika’s complicated sexuality – his insistent courtship drives her to increasingly erratic actions.

She sabotages a maligned student’s upcoming performance by leaving broken glass in her coat pocket; she kisses and gropes her mother in their matching twin beds – both happen during an extended limbo where she’s unsure if Walter could fulfil her dangerous fantasies, or if he’s disgusted by them. Finally, Walter lashes out and, trying to meet Erika’s demands (which she communicated via detailed letter), violently rapes her. When he next sees her, he acknowledges her so casually that she stabs herself with a kitchen knife.

Repression can feel awfully similar to control, and control can often be mistaken for agency. Discipline inherently involves repressing certain instincts and traits, and both Tár and Erika are deeply engaged in the practice of removing themselves from overwhelming emotions; guilt, culpability, abuse, worthlessness. Erika is as much a victim as an abuser of her unpolished students; she is ultimately violated and assaulted as a result of relinquishing her tight sense of control to someone who then abused it.

But Tár took advantage of her control over someone and expected the spiralling consequences to obey her command just as much as her student once did. Lydia Tár may hold a lot more charisma, but both her and Erika try to project the same rigid order they hold over their interior world onto the one surrounding them. A lot of the time, they succeed. But when they fail, their discipline is inadequate for controlling not only other people, but their own disordered inner chaos. “I want this for me” becomes “this is necessary for art.” It’s difficult to deny such a noble cause.

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