Were We All Wrong About “Tár”?

Stark Confines

The art monsters of Todd Field’s Tár.

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We first meet Lydia Tár waiting in the wings of an auditorium, called to the stage and lavished with a listing of her accolades: She is a lauded composer, a trained concert pianist, one of only 15 people to score an EGOT, and the holder of a PhD in musicology from the University of Vienna, where she specialized in the Indigenous music of eastern Peru’s Ucayali Valley. These laurels are recited by Adam Gopnik, who is introducing Tár for a talk at the New Yorker Festival, occasioned by the upcoming publication of Tár’s memoir and her live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, where she has been chief conductor for seven years. Her onstage musings are dense with esoterica, and stilted affectations mark her speech, as if she has rehearsed the cadence of profundity. Lydia Tár, if it is not already clear, is a very, very serious artist. Seriousness and the spirit of extravagance, to cite Susan Sontag, are the hallmarks of camp, and they give us a clue about the tonal mysteries to come: Like its title character, Todd Field’s Tár turns out to be extravagantly serious.

But before we hear Tár (played by Cate Blanchett) deliver her prestige-laden salvo, we are primed for the film’s incongruous mix of affects by an opening that is equally oblique. After a brief shot of Tár in mid-sleep disarray, caught via smartphone livestream—the first of social media’s many intrusions—the film pivots to what we’d normally expect at the end: The entire closing credits unfurl on the screen, set to a lilting icaro sung by the Shipibo-Konibo shaman Elisa Vargas Fernandez, whose voice is layered with birdsong and humming cicadas. The provenance of this audio is never explained, though it’s likely a field recording made by Tár, since we hear her cajole the performance from the singer in a frustrated staccato: “No… just… ignore the microphone, act as if it’s not there; sing as if it’s not there.” These preliminary gestures announce Tár’s sprawling concerns—the ethics of artistic genius, the miasma of institutional corruption—while setting us up for the almost inscrutable critique that follows, as punch lines ricochet with disorienting fervor.

Tár carries the vestiges of Blanchett’s performance in Carol (2015), her other titular sapphic role as a moneyed and repressed urbanite straining against the force of her own want. But here, Lydia Tár—who surrenders so intuitively to her desires that she could never see their pursuit as predation—strains against a life built on delusion. Every frame in Tár is as contrived as the person it follows: Field’s compositions are arrayed with enough luxury commodities for a feature in Architectural Digest. Most of Tár’s clothes are made-to-measure by tailors at Egon Brandstetter, every buttoned-up collar and pin-tucked trouser pleat yielding to the peculiarities of her body in motion. She drives an electric Porsche sedan, gliding through the streets of Berlin like a sleek silver shark, and inside the brutalist apartment she shares with her partner, Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), and their adopted daughter, Petra, the prosaic domestic scene becomes another site for flaunting her discernment.

A life this hermetic is no solitary effort. Tár’s fortress of megalomania is guarded by a retinue of acolytes and advisers, the closest of whom are Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant), her dart-eyed personal assistant and latest conducting protégée, and Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), a fawning financier and novice conductor whose admiration Tár courts for funding, lavish lunches, and free rides in private jets and Town Cars. Soon after her New Yorker Festival appearance, we glimpse the comportment of a figure protected by the myth of her own exceptionalism. At lunch with Eliot, she suggests they change the mandate of the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, a mentoring program for women conductors she founded (“We’ve made our point!”). During a guest seminar at Juilliard, Tár callously mishandles a student’s dubious but principled disavowal of Bach’s music, dismissing the student’s complaints as social-media-ordained groupthink and turning a moment of pedagogical possibility into one of punitive humiliation.

By the time Tár arrives back in Berlin, we’ve seen this cruel laxity prefigure her family life, too: She slinks home, late at night, with a refill of the beta-blockers she stole from Sharon and a red Hermès Birkin acquired from a fan, an odious trophy of their off-screen tryst. As Sharon, the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Hoss telegraphs a formidable rigor on a par with Blanchett’s, though their mutual severity softens in each other’s presence. It is no surprise that Tár’s life partner would radiate a brilliance of her own, but the murky genesis of their relationship sets something of an unfortunate precedent. Soon enough, we learn that the maestro’s eye for fresh talent also guides her erotic preferences. When a young Russian cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), stirs some base impulse during auditions, Tár spies another ingénue prime for grooming.

Beneath the surface curations of her life, an undertow of disorder surges as paranoia becomes the film’s source of momentum, saturating Tár’s dreams and waking life. By chance or design, she is repeatedly confronted by a red-and-blue symbol that appears with the jolt of a jump-scare, its labyrinthine spiral stalking the pages of scattered sheet music and anonymous gifts, never explained but always the catalyst of sudden terror. These cues plunge us into Tár’s ambient dread without letting us in on what she knows, which is more than almost any other character. But when she learns, from a disconsolate Francesca, that her last star pupil—and intimate beneficiary—has died by suicide, the depths of her manipulations become explicit.

It might seem anticlimactic that Tár’s mounting arcana would wind up presenting the audience with a story as mundane (though insidious) as that of abuse committed by famous figures and the institutions that prop them up. Lydia Tár is, in all her denunciations of identity politics and social media, less a character than a pastiche of generational bugbears, an emissary of the zeitgeist’s polarizing dramas. But the film’s ominous thrall is almost flattening in its seriousness, making it difficult to parse the locus of its parody. Sincerity, in many scenes, becomes its own form of obfuscation.

Such is the promising but vexing trick that structures Tár and invites easy misreadings: The film hews to its central character’s perspective while denying its audience the information requisite for empathetic identification. Field places us into the immediacy of Tár’s day-to-day life—rehearsals, board meetings, manic bouts of exercise—and her interiority surfaces only in the psychic detritus of nocturnal visions and phantom sounds that pierce her sleep and send her searching in the ink-black night. That we are locked in present-tense action and entirely closed off from Tár’s past is part of the distancing necessary for the film’s partial ambiguity, though it offers a frank enough stance on one point: The particulars of her past abuse might be suppressed, but she is clearly abusive.

By withholding memory and any substantive evocation of Tár’s childhood, Field avoids the rationale of a backstory. Her abhorrent behavior is never given a legible motivation and therefore partial absolution. The few scraps of her biography divulge no formative trauma beyond the usual class shame: In her escape from a cramped home in the suburbs of Staten Island, her birth name (Linda) gained a syllable and her accent a Mid-Atlantic cadence. Even as swelling trails of correspondence with former mentees become damning enough for litigation, the full picture of Tár’s transgressions remains a looming shadow, the number of her victims untold. We are aligned with her insofar as she seems pathetically, desperately human, but never worthy of pity or redemption—something that she herself does not appear so witless as to expect. For all its calculated opacity, Tár does not obscure the fact of its antagonist’s guilt.

While the film’s piecemeal portrait is part of the point, it tests our ability to put up with another kind of cloistered insularity that runs through Tár’s life: All those meticulous interiors—polished concrete and glass; the beechwood-paneled concert hall—are displays of aspirational Europhilia. In these stark confines, made icier by a muted blue light that washes every frame in a clinical pall, the putative “Other” becomes conspicuous: Tár’s snide remarks about the “Chinese market,” the BIPOC student she bullied at Juilliard, even her daughter, who is a Syrian adoptee. The presence of these racialized figures is marked by an ambivalence that feels discomfiting. In a film shaped by its sense of claustrophobic whiteness and the prejudices of its antagonist, it becomes hard to tell who is in on the joke, or if one is even being made at all. Depiction, as the axiom goes, is not endorsement, but in following a white liberal’s fettered cosmopolitan gaze, the film can only replicate the very constraints of that perspective. Even if the emphasis on Tár’s ethnomusicology fieldwork is a reflexive comment on the seizure of Indigenous knowledge by the academy, the film ultimately invokes Shipibo-Konibo culture as little more than ornamental flourishes—cryptic dreams that foment intrigue; a line in Tár’s CV; a stylized photograph of a shaman mounted in her home like so much decor.

Tár’s fraught handling of the so-called Other moves to center stage in the final act, when her downfall takes her to an unnamed Southeast Asian country. She’s there for a conducting job, but we find her, for the first time, lingering in the open air: boating down a glassy river, seeking respite in a thunderous waterfall, annotating her score at a street food stall in lieu of an office. If she feels demeaned by her new milieu, we never see her express it, and for a moment her relocation seems to reveal some kernel of genuine integrity, a devotion to conducting so intense that she’d go anywhere in its pursuit. But before her ostensible humbling, before she has even left the Western metropole, there is a scene that slyly undermines the arc that follows. In the briefest of meetings with a crisis management agency, we hear the gist of a PR strategy: “Right now, it’s a reset,” an adviser cautions Tár. “That means we need a new story.”

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