The most calculating movie of the year isn’t an Oscar-bait tearjerker or a Disney animated feature. It’s Todd Field’s first feature film in 16 years, Tár. The story of a conductor in a state of dissolution stars Cate Blanchett, who plays the role with the typical bombast she brings to the screen. Critics are already hailing Tár as the first true masterpiece of 2022, but it has a whiff of contrived talking points on closer inspection. Tár aspires to be the conversation starter about “cancel culture,” but it really just wants you to know how hard consequences are on the accused.
In a decision that could only be a defensive manoeuvre, Field centres his rumination on cancel culture around a lesbian. This substitution allows the audience to identify with Lydia Tár — however briefly. If Field intended to make a grand statement about the culture of the moment, a hetero, middle-aged, white male would presumably make the introspection more difficult. What lengths we are willing to go to separate art from the artist depends on the artist. Having a queer woman abuse her power prompts a more considered approach, which carries fewer #MeToo preconceptions–but also says much about the #MeToo stories that go unsaid.
We find Lydia Tár at the height of her powers. She’s an EGOT winner and about to take on conducting a Mahler symphony. The first time a woman has taken such a role for the Berlin Philharmonic. Tár sits for an interview by the New Yorker, though it feels more like a coronation. Field adds a layer of irony to the scene by having Adam Gopnik play himself. A venerated journalist should ask hard-hitting questions, yet Gopnik becomes a fanboy. He fawns over Tár and regurgitates her Wikipedia profile word for word. The scene in question is amusing, but only until one realizes that’s how predators in the entertainment industry keep skating by.
Next, Tár lords over a Julliard lecture hall to publicly humiliate a student for questioning Bach’s status in the modern world by arguing that the flaws of his personal life trump the merits of his music. Tár feigns concern at first, but she ends by screaming at a 20-something (who’s still figuring their life out) that they’ve let identity politics turn them into a robot. Field rolls out both scenes statically, lingering for almost too long on the environments Tár inhabits and controls. “You must stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.” The only thing that Tár obliterates is her own awareness. She enjoys the power she wields everywhere, even if it’s to intimidate an eight-year-old schoolyard bully in German to defend her daughter.
That is until a former protégé commits suicide. Then Tár’s iron-fisted grasp on her cultivated image disintegrates once accusations hit the web. The question arises whether power dynamics are only abusive when they are of a sexual nature. Field subscribes to the maxim that sexual assault isn’t about the sex, but the power. When Tár and her Philharmonic colleagues hold blind auditions, she quickly changes her notes as soon as she recognizes an attractive woman from the bathroom–presumably, to favour the young cellist. Tár doesn’t separate her personal life from her work, and judging from her assistants Francesca and Krista, she doesn’t separate her bedroom from work either. Field, however, goes to lengths to suggest Tár’s hinted-at affairs are only so younger women can be closer to her musical brilliance.
We spend nearly the entire running time with Tár, but you still don’t know her at the film’s end. When she’s not in the spotlight or by herself, who is she? We don’t know. We also don’t know whether Tár is guilty of what she’s accused of doing. It is no concern to Field or Blanchett. Neither the actor nor director show interest in answering questions for the audience. Field doesn’t consciously stack the deck with evidence for or against Tár, but at a certain point, the constant gliding over time periods makes one wonder. Hearings, details, and the accusers’ narratives are all offscreen. The film implies that Tár’s life and career could end in mere weeks, although that’s hyperbole–and uneven pacing. The script feels less organic once Francesca (Noémie Merlant) leaves and like a pile-on.
Interviewing with Indiewire, Field broke down his intentions with the film. “There is no black or white. To find the truth of something requires a little more rigor.” If Tár’s behaviour has to be hidden to remain neutral as a viewer, then you are taking a stance. To present a tale that allows for debate on both sides, we can’t know, but Field seems happy to tip the scales on the abuser’s behalf. He continues in the interview that, a “healthy part of social discourse is so fundamental to Western civilization… the idea that it would be extinguished or somehow neutered is frightening.” Which, again, misstates the conversation we are having as a culture. The accused aren’t thrown out of their industries without trial. Predators still walk free when evidence is undeniable. Even after their convictions, some people still gave Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein the benefit of the doubt.
Field misconstrues his satire as tragedy, giving Blanchett’s titular character the Medea treatment when a laugh track would’ve sufficed. She isn’t a feminist. Once she gets hers, she’s content to ask a group created to advance women in classical music to allow men in. She reasons that due to her success, they’ve proven the point, haven’t they? Gatekeeping is what Tár takes pride in. Without her constant vigilance, anyone could come in and devalue the music that defines her life. Why should she feel the burden to lift up others? She’s the spectacular exception. Tár reassures herself of her standing by explaining to her daughter, “not everyone can be a conductor; this isn’t a democracy.” Ignoring that musicians in the USSR conducted orchestras themselves. No conductor necessary.
Blanchett is compulsively watchable, although you could describe her performance as camp (well-delivered but camp nonetheless). Gyllenhaal’s turn in Ambulance has a very similar energy, but apart from one Uproxx article, he won’t get a push for Oscar like Blanchett will for Tár. Still, Blanchett is the reason why Tár has such a high profile. It’s exactly the sort of role that draws lots of eyes and many awards votes. Spectacle emanates from Blanchett’s face with each tiny gesture. Considering the flawless way she conducts herself, any crack/twitch/tremble suggests a chasm forming underneath the surface. Her performance is gravitas personified. Yet it’s not enough for the director.
If Field wanted to make a total breakdown of a character at the height of her powers, nothing stopped him. Making Tár a sexual predator is a conscious choice, but Field isn’t interested in anything other than the indignity of Tár being subjected to less than first-class accommodations. Field wants Tár to raise interesting questions, but apart from the astute camera work and highbrow conversations depicted, he’s more interested in thumbing his nose at the audience. In that regard, this film isn’t all that different from Dragged Across Concrete. Another film that pretended to be provocative, but merely trolled viewers.
Táe showed its hand during Blanchett’s lambasting of Max and again with her meal with Andris (Julian Glover). Field, not trusting his audience, repeatedly hits its messaging home again and again. Tár could have been an insightful character piece highlighted by Blachett’s high-wire antics. A picture that followed the dizzying heights of celebrity all the way down to the squalor of exile. If it was content with that, it would be a better film. Instead, Field wants us to ask why a person so special should be brought so low. There is no doubt that Tár is brilliant, but her monstrous ego isn’t what made her who she is. Once she decided to use her talent to make her relationships transactional, Tár orchestrated her own downfall.