To use a classical music illustration, TÁR and The Banshees of Inisherin are like variations on a similar tune. Both movies ask us to consider what—and whom—we’re willing to sacrifice in the name of great art.
These questions manifest against very different backdrops. Written and directed by Todd Field, TÁR takes place in the present day, waltzing its way from the classrooms of Juilliard to the concert halls of Berlin. The Banshees of Inisherin—written and directed by Martin McDonagh and set in the 1920s against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War—never leaves the fictional Irish isle of the title. The former focuses on the life and eventual undoing of world-renowned conductor and composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett); the latter focuses on two drinking companions, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and folk musician Colm (Brendan Gleeson), whose friendship begins to sour.
Colm and Lydia have both internalized similar narratives about what it takes to make great art, despite being at two different points on their artistic journeys. The films are portraits of unraveling as both of them, in the pursuit of artistic ideals, willingly pay a high cost and end up hurting their family, friends, and communities. As Lydia seeks to add another feather to her impressive cap by conducting a live recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Colm desires to compose an original piece of music that will be remembered after his passing, the two use their artistic drive as an excuse to exploit and harm the people around them, believing that doing so is not only right, but necessary.
In TÁR, Blanchett portrays Lydia with an engulfing ferocity. During the film’s many conducting scenes, Lydia holds her baton like a sword, as if she’s dueling an invisible assailant. Yet even in moments of great passion, Lydia is always in control. In conversations, her eyes seem locked in a perpetual half-squint, as if she’s constantly doubting what the person across from her is saying. We eventually learn that she has a pattern of grooming students for sexual relationships on the promise that she might advance their careers. Upon this revelation, her controlled life takes on a more sinister meaning; she has normalized this abuse, comfortably folding it into the rhythms of her life. Because of her status, she feels it is OK to let her impulses and appetites run wild. From publicly humiliating a student who questions her to dragging her assistant (Noémie Merlant) along with promises of promotion, only to undercut her at every turn, Lydia’s genius is her alibi for abuse. She has deceived herself that these acts sustain her as she goes about her work—and by extension are integral to her genius
If TÁR offers an image of an artist at the peak of her manipulative powers, The Banshees of Inisherin paints a picture of an artist in his infancy, taking the first steps toward alienating others. Without as much as a heads up or a send-off drink, Colm tells Pádraic he doesn’t want to see him anymore. Gripped by a desire to build something that will outlast him, Colm has decided to devote his energies to writing a great folk song; as a result, he does not have a place in his life for “dullness,” a quality that the simple Pádraic abundantly supplies. Colm goes so far as to threaten Pádraic that if he continues to try to talk to him, Colm will cut a finger off of his own hand. Through this act of self-mutilation, Colm seeks to prove a macabre point: that Pádraic’s relentless niceness and “aimless chatting'' not only doesn’t help him, it actually hinders the creation of good music. It might as well be Pádraic himself who is doing the shearing.
Does great art always have to come at the cost of one’s humanity?
While these two films do not take place in some Fields-McDonagh Cinematic Universe (FMCU™), it is a fun thought experiment to imagine that they occupy the same timeline. Say Colm’s music becomes revered in the classical music world. Say it even inspires Lydia Tár, who studies him and considers him one of the greats. Though their narrative arcs are separated by some 100 years, the fact that both share the same self-destructive vices raises timeless questions. Does the pursuit of artistic greatness always have to end in desolation? Does great art always have to come at the cost of one’s humanity? Is artistic immortality worth any cost?
While God has blessed us with creative gifts and wants us to steward those talents well, scripture also makes it clear that no matter how mighty and great our works, they take a back seat to loving our neighbor. This love is what truly lasts. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul contrasts a foundation built on Christ with the “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw” that one might build on top of it. The work “will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” Even the most stirring music will fade and burn. What survives is the love we have for Christ and each other.
In many ways, Lydia and Colm’s stories are nothing new. Films featuring the self-destructive artist who pushes away their community to achieve greatness are their own subgenre. Lest we be deceived that such behavior is ever “worth it,” there’s a scene midway through The Banshees of Inisherin that offers a gentle retort. After Pádraic exposes the island’s abusive policeman (Gary Lydon) for beating his son, the policeman pummels Pádraic in the street, leaving him dazed and confused on the ground. Others walk by, ignoring him, while Colm watches from afar. Although he has already announced his edict and ended their friendship, Colm helps Pádraic onto his wagon, grabs the reins, and wordlessly takes him most of the way back home. He doesn’t quite go as far as bandaging Pádraic’s wounds and treating them with oil and wine, yet the moment stands as one of the film’s most touching scenes—an act of “niceness” that will ring in eternity, beyond any music Colm might write.