By Christopher Sharrett.
As a way of addressing woke culture, it has precious little to say, especially as it irresponsibly conflates the culture with sexual predation, a glaringly different matter, unless the film is aimed at those with grievances about women having too much power…. There is so little music in the film there is little reason to undertake this sort of debate, and whatever talent Lydia may have is undercut by all the evidence in the film that she is an unoriginal crackpot.”
The signature image for Todd Field’s Tár, dominating its theatrical release poster, is an extreme low-angle shot of a woman (her bosom), arms outstretched, a conductor’s baton in her right hand, her body arched backward. Her only feature available to us is the underside of her jaw. It is an extreme moment, and out of context, readable as an instant of great expression (presumably as an orchestra swells), or of madness, which in retrospect seems the point. The poster image has an androgynous quality, but without the positive connotation of such an image’s merger of the feminine and the masculine. The image is of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a hyper-credentialed conductor of many international orchestras. We learn, in the narrative, that she is utterly ruthless, possibly sociopathic, and very masculine. This monstrous androgyne may be the point of the film: the demolition, in the current moment, of all prospects for human progress, as patriarchy under deindustrialized capitalism asserts a ruthless (but necessary? there is confusion here) reversal of the last century’s humane accomplishments, under the cover of an intriguing but bogus example of woman totally free at last.
Like the main character of the film, the image contains some of the dominant characteristics of patriarchal civilization, dissolving the positive traits of the feminine: extravagant assertion of power and authority; the domination of those “below”; the insistence on unchallenged privilege at whatever cost. Even the film’s title wants dominance: all capitals, with an acute accent over the “A,” suggesting demand for recognition (rather than cooperation, with a dash of old world emphasis to convey a separation from the new, an insistence on what was once termed “the better class of men”). But, above all, aside from another demonization of woman, Tár offers very little beyond atmospherics, which some want to say creates nuance, but which merely underscores the rendering of the female monster. The poster conveys the female conductor not as inspired genius; the pose, like many such poses when Lydia conducts, suggests a spastic, sprung clockwork mechanism, of a painted motorized mannequin, like those that used to appear at the doors of an amusement park funhouse, unnerving and grotesque. I am at a loss how this film is supposedly meant to represent the complexity of the female artist,
When I saw the poster, I took note of Tár’s director, Todd Field, a filmmaker I kept in mind since his impressive melodramas from 2001 and 2006 respectively, In the Bedroom and Little Children, but revisiting these films has been a bit dispiriting. I found that the vigilante theme in the final reel of In the Bedroom, while basic to the story, is implausible, doing no good service to the agonizing tale of unrelieved grief suffered by a middle-aged couple after the murder of their only child. Further, the vigilante killing has the father as the gunman, with the plot seemingly put in motion by the wife, who challenges the husband’s affect, his seeming emotional remove (cowardice?). Since it is clear that the husband does feel grief, the film recalls the demonizing of the female in films of the late-70s/early 80s (Ordinary People).
Little Children overall fares better in its look at the suburban world, even if the image of “little children” is stretched a bit thin, implying that everyone from a cheating couple to a deluded, brutal cop to a child molester are immature kids, playing out their dumb little games – a Hummel collection of cute-kid figurines makes sure we get the point. The worst error is the inclusion of Will Lyman, long the narrator of the PBS documentary series Frontline for voiceover, not only telling us what to think but giving a documentary, ethnographic complexion, with us in the superior position, observing these bemused middle-class boobs. I still view Field with respect, if a little diminished.
Robin Wood’s expression “incoherent text” might provide the most efficient approach to Tár, which otherwise would be impenetrable. By incoherent text, Wood meant not a totally jumbled, unreadable work, but one with conflicting moral or ideological positions – at worst, in his words, such works “don’t know what they want to say.”
Tár would seem incoherent indeed, since it has provoked all sorts of debate that themselves seem incoherent, even concerning basic plot points. Film Comment, for example, sponsored a pro/con podcast argument, with Jessica Kiang favoring the film, Nathan Lee dissenting. Kiang applauds the film for its courageous presentation, at this point in women’s history, of a genuine female villain on the order of Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood (2007). Kiang’s knowledge of film history seems not very developed if Daniel Day-Lewis’s growling John Huston impersonation is for her the most impressive incarnation of villainy, and haven’t women been villainized since the birth of the medium? Lee says that the film has strong camp elements, and misjudgments at every turn. Elsewhere, reviewers suggest that the film isn’t about an artist at all, but the awfulness within art itself. This makes sense if we ignore the central character, on screen for every scene, with specific impulses not shared by others who partake of art. Richard Brody has spoken of “Tár wars,” a critical conflict that appears to have broken out over the film (I fail to see much discourse of serious note –what replaces criticism, as usual, are outbreaks of spleen – vague, if impassioned, emotional assertion). There is indeed something like what proponents term a “Tár universe” developing, about which more later – it is notable that this language copies the fans of the DC and Marvel comic book/movie universes (copying corporate language as well), with all the embodied cynicism.
Lydia sees little in the way of a glass ceiling, or other barriers effecting the advancement of women musicians in the classical music industry – yet she rattles off the names of women whose careers, she claims, were hindered; one, according to her, was reduced to a ‘dog act.’ The point seems that she wasn’t especially hindered, so what is the problem?”
The Treason of the Servants
There are two key scenes that introduce Lydia Tár to us, but before them is the true establishing moment, as we look at Lydia, asleep on a jet. We watch her simultaneously on the screen and as she is watched on a smartphone held in someone’s hand (to make the point, I assume, that Lydia is something of a simulacrum), who is texting and receiving texts:
“what time did she get up this am?
“I wasn’t with her, s. was
“our girl’s an early riser isn’t she?
“ha, you mean she has a conscience”
“S” is very likely Sharon (Nina Hoss), Lydia’s wife and concertmaster under the maestro. The person holding the phone is very likely Francesca (Noemie Merlant), Lydia’s assistant and, essentially, her body servant – Francesca dreams of going up the classical music art/business ladder. The smartphone texting suggests an immediate, basic point: Lydia is held in contempt by those closest to her, and reviled by those admiring her at some remove. But is she a complex, reflective person? Hardly, if we read the film closely. Does the film in some way want us to see her as complicated? It is difficult to say, since the film says nothing about her which we might admire. (the film has only scraps of music, and Lydia/Blanchett conducting). The person on the other end of the texts says that Lydia may be “haunted” (no doubt about the sexual exploitation of Krista, whose story becomes the central, if somewhat oblique, subject of the film). The response: laughter, and dismissal of the suggestion that Lydia has a conscience. Nothing in the film adds nuance to this condemnation in the first seconds of the film. We might argue that this establishing moment gives Lydia a little bit of affirmation if we see her encased by the phone’s glass and metal, a specimen for the mass media.
Two much-discussed, dialogue-heavy scenes follow the smartphone: Lydia being interviewed by Adam Gopnick, an actual writer for The New Yorker, and a sequence at the Juilliard School, where Lydia teaches a “master class” (this term always bothered me – is the teacher supposed to be a master, or are students supposed to be mastering a discipline. For me, neither definition has ever seemed pertinent to understanding American education).
The Gopnick interview, at The New Yorker Festival (the magazine employs Gopnick) is an awkward embarrassment, giving us Lydia’s complete resume, which, combined with her vocal expression and body language, is a very tiresome moment of posturing by someone portrayed as a key representative of upper-middle-class, urbanite culture-vultures of New York, receiving fealty, but trying to act demure and unassuming in a painfully ill-considered performance. Some reviewers introduce the words “camp” and “kitsch” to describe not just the scene but the film overall (some take swipes – justified in my view – at other self-absorbed New Yorker reviewers like Anthony Lane, so fed-up were they at what the film offers – but perhaps this culture is too accurately presented, a virtue of the movie?).
Posturing and Deceit
What is revealed in the interview is disturbing. Lydia sees little in the way of a glass ceiling, or other barriers effecting the advancement of women musicians in the classical music industry – yet she rattles off the names of women whose careers, she claims, were hindered; one, according to her, was reduced to a “dog act.” The point seems that she wasn’t especially hindered, so what is the problem? As the interview proceeds, something odd happens. We see Francesca on the sidelines, mouthing every word of what is said onstage, including the interviewer’s. The whole thing is a rehearsed show, since Lydia needs careful marketing? The inauthenticity and bankruptcy of Lydia seems the point, one emphasized by an intercut scene as the interview continues. We see a woman in bare feet from a high angle (we might assume it is Lydia) holding a stack of classical LPs, throwing them on the floor, one by one. Most seem to be Leonard Bernstein recordings – much is made of Lydia’s tutelage by Bernstein, who died in 1990 of pulmonary illness after decades of cigarettes. His last years were occupied with “radical chic.” Are Lydia’s claims about her mentorship, for all the talk of “Lennie,” credible, especially as her pathological lying is exposed? Above all, could someone of Bernstein’s humor and compassion be associated with a Lydia Tár? The point may be that American audiences accept anything: they are told that she is a genius, that she knew Bernstein, and they go along with all the nonsense.
Perhaps Field thinks his audience is ignorant of Mahler and music in general, but even if true, the information is too commonly available to take this conversation seriously – Lydia enlightens us about nothing. Certainly the film’s audience – a small one – is discerning, and aware of film history enough that they would be aware how Visconti caused renewed discourse about Mahler a half-century ago.”
Lydia throws another album jacket on the floor – it is Claudio Abbado’s recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Another bare foot appears – it points to the Abaddo LP. On its cover, he is at a desk, making notes on an open folio; as the film continues, Lydia will proceed to copy the photo on the album, using Abbado’s image for her own upcoming record, changing the camera angle slightly.
Her disingenuousness appears in ways large and small. She tells Gopnick that she doesn’t follow reviews. We later see her running in an overcast park in Berlin. She stops at a newsdealer, who (routinely it seems) saves magazines mentioning her. She keeps articles and news clippings in a box at the flat she shares with Sharon.
Lydia’s dishonesty leads us, very soon in the film, to her lack of talent and insight, her unoriginality. We must assume that the filmmakers know this of their creation, but there is the possibility that they don’t understand elements of their own narrative – could Lydia be that stupid? This issue is important to Lydia’s main ambition, and the heart of the film’s story: she wants to conduct a new rendering of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, with special attention to the adagietto, the slow movement suggestive either of romance or profound sadness, depending on tempo. She talks about the ways that this piece, intended by Mahler as a love letter to his wife Alma, has been misread, although she excuses such slips as Bernstein’s ultra-slow performance of the adagietto at the funeral of Robert Kennedy, to obvious mournful effect. When we see her conducting the adagietto with the Berlin Philharmonic later, she pauses abruptly, telling the orchestra to “forget Visconti” – Luchino Visconti used Franco Mannino’s version of the adagietto to funereal effect in his 1971 Death in Venice. We should take note of something: nothing that she says or does here shows a whit of knowledge about Mahler and his conductors. The business about the tempo of the adagietto is very old news; it has been discussed by any number of artists and scholars of the last century. Benjamin Zander devotes a CD of instruction about the topic on his own performance of the Fifth (or the “5” as Lydia says, the preferred diction of the insider music world). Perhaps Field thinks his audience is ignorant of Mahler and music in general, but even if true, the information is too commonly available to take this conversation seriously – Lydia enlightens us about nothing. Certainly the film’s audience – a small one – is discerning, and aware of film history enough that they would be aware how Visconti caused renewed discourse about Mahler a half-century ago. Can this be other than a further attempt to portray his “nuanced” character as a posturing moron? Can Field be knowledgeable of what constitutes nuance?
The Naïve Student
The other major expository scene is the master class at Juilliard, where Lydia decides to humiliate Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a young student identifying as “BIPOC, pangender,” just after she interrupts him from a moment’s conducting a piece by Anna Thorvaldsdittor, a piece Lydia smugly terms “au courant.” Lydia, who has no time for avant-garde modernism (despite the passage Gopnick reads in the endless bio about Lydia programming the contemporary alongside the classical, another lie) mocks a student who praises Thorvalsdottir’s atonalism, saying one could “contemplate or masturbate” over the composition. But Lydia holds her blasts for Max, who cannot accept Lydia’s invitation (it is far more than that) to conduct Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Max cannot abide a cisgender male who produced twenty children.
The first issue to recognize in this dreadful scene is its portrayal of monstrous teaching, one with which many of us are familiar from grammar to graduate school. Lydia, caring for no one but herself, brutalizes Max, emotionally and intellectually (she even jabs at his face to convey hostility, violating flagrantly what speech instructors term “personal space”). Lydia cares not at all for Max as student or human being because there are no human impulses to her, which is why I see her practice as common, and the standard for all stages of academe. She moves to the stage, saying “ a soul selects her own society.” The Emily Dickinson quote, wrenched from context, can only tell Max he is worthless scum. She asks him what he has learned from another instructor, replying “very Punkt Kontrapunkt; the lapsing into another language a gesture at furthering alienation. When she is sure that Max bears the entire weight of class attention – always a terrible burden – she asks him to “indulge” her by accompanying her at the piano. She tells him to “sit,” as if he were a dog, a command commonly used, and suggestive of the militarized and impolite society that assumes we have no humanity, Lydia’s key assumption.
Max simply has no response to Lydia’s instruction that one’s own identity is an absurd rationale for refusing to partake of new knowledge (I am disturbed by reports that certain audiences applaud Lydia’s demolition of “cancel culture” in this scene, for me a chilling image, saying much about all sides of academe; new, “radical” thinking seems to me less a challenge in the classroom than complaints that material is “boring” – the students I’ve taught would for the most part drift off at even short disquisitions on the classics), but Max is too paralyzed to say much of anything, his left leg twitching nervously (Field overdoes this). What Lydia says about identity politics isn’t wrong, but she is wholly wrong in her contempt. Max storms out of the room, yelling “fucking bitch” (unlikely in real life). She answers by calling him a “robot,” a term she applies frequently to those she thinks stupid or uninformed – almost everyone. She finishes her lecture on conducting by telling students that the conductor must “stand before the public and God and obliterate yourself.” Certainly she sees herself in the martyr’s role, but how much she is willing to sacrifice is another question, given her extreme narcissism.
The Heart of the Matter
What is Tár about? Why is it centered on classical music? What is it saying about sexual predation? The points it offers strike me as a bit juvenile, the insights of a person (we might say a male) who has scarcely lived. The taking-on (very anemically, without argument) of cancel culture is concerned with the idea of whether one can delete art when the artist if found to be reprehensible, or when levels of meaning are discovered in the artwork that cancel its significance. This is a line of thought that would have been seen as associated with the most destructive impulses a half-century ago. In his masterful 1969 monograph Ingmar Bergman, Robin Wood spoke of the director’s close moral association with “the great European civilized tradition” exemplified for Wood especially by the music of Bach and Mozart, but including, based on Bergman’s oeuvre, an array of literature and painting as well (Wood at the time juxtaposed Bergman with Godard, who in films like Weekend seemed to embrace the disintegration of European civilization and its adjacent values). At the time, Wood was examining the oncoming Maoist impulses of Godard; the new cancel culture might be in service of genuine social progress, but its display, at least per Todd Field, looks simply nihilistic and very wrong-headed, and less interesting than Godard’s Mao.
After the Juilliard moment, there is a disturbing exchange that touches on the place of yesterday’s culture and its utility to the present. Lydia has lunch with Andris Davis (Julian Glover), an old mentor and retired conductor who gave Lydia a leg up. Toward end of the chat, Lydia complains that her own composing is going poorly (is there any composing? – it looks unlikely) since what she attempts feels like “pastiche.” Andris says that everything can be seen as pastiche, citing material taken by Beethoven from Mozart, which seems to appall Lydia. Is the point to dismiss the notion of originality? Perhaps, especially as Andris emerges as hardened cynic. The subject changes, with Lydia complaining about the noisiness of a producer’s studio. Andris responds with an unnerving irrelevancy. He says that “Schopenhauer measured a man’s intelligence against his sensitivity to noise.” Lydia has a rejoinder: “Didn’t he also push a woman down a flight of stairs?” Andris (jokingly): “Yes, but it is unclear whether this private and personal failing is at all relevant to his work.” The moment ends, but we should be curious about an important moment in intellectual history. In 1821, while living in Berlin, the pessimistic philosopher pushed to the ground – after she blocked his doorway – a seamstress in her forties, Caroline Louise Marquet, causing her serious injury. She sued. The details are mostly lost, but a civil court ruled in Marquet’s favor, forcing Schopenhauer to pay a penalty to the woman until her death in 1847, at which time the philosopher reportedly said: “The old woman is dead; the burden is lifted.” Or it may have been “The bitch is dead, the burden departs,” or some variant. To those who knew him, the point was clear.
Critic Robin Wood’s expression ‘incoherent text’ might provide the most efficient approach to Tár, which otherwise would be impenetrable. By incoherent text, Wood meant not a totally jumbled, unreadable work, but one with conflicting moral or ideological positions – at worst, in his words, such works ‘don’t know what they want to say.’”
Andris might feel that Schopenhauer’s “private and personal” failing had no relevance to his work, if all of us refuse to study intellectuals carefully, and consider the moral implications of what is accomplished. For my part, Schopenhauer is one of intellectual history’s colossal hypocrites, whose work focused on the suppression of the will, in part through contemplation of the Upanishads and other Eastern thought, while he indulged himself at every turn in affairs (fleeing when a woman became pregnant) and the cultivation of the sensory palate. He was a monarchist whose contempt for democracy was a controlling feature of his “work.” He allowed soldiers the vantage point of his window to fire upon 1848 revolutionaries. Nietzsche would take him (in death) on in one of philosophy’s tedious wrestling matches. Nietzsche, mistaken (or was he?) for a proto-Nazi, at least had the luck to be insane – he was, however, the spiritual father of the recent mishmash called postmodern theory. For Andris and Lydia, the bones of a brutalized woman (or a civilization) are worth nothing next to a Great Man’s strivings.
There is another meeting with the degraded Andris – for a gray eminence he is slow on the uptake, failing to see that his pupil has long planned the “rotation” of his old friend Sebastian (Allan Corduner) as assistant conductor. As the walls close in on Lydia, the predation issue emerging, Lydia delicately asks Andris for his insights into accusations of bad behavior with colleagues. Andris, ever the self-absorbed cynic, immediately thinks she is referring to his behavior, to which he remarks he is “out of the game.” He throws out remarks about the conductor “Jimmy” Levine, who according to Andris, was “pulled from the podium,” and Charles Dutoit, who was “hunted.” Andris is disturbed that “to be accused is the same as being guilty” (perhaps because, for so long, the victim simply wasn’t taken seriously regardless of evidence). Incredibly, Andris jumps from conductors accused of sex crimes to conductors suspected of collaboration with the Third Reich. Even Lydia is a little surprised, but both of them sympathize with the aggressor. Lydia could find common cause with Herbert von Karajan, who joined the Nazi Party twice, and postwar became the hero of Deutsche Grammophon recordings, a label synonymous with the modern stature of classical music – Karajan’s Nazi past is no secret to anyone informed, yet has little relevance to his embrace. When Andris mentions Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwangler (a more heroic figure), Lydia asks merely “who was the better conductor?,” clearing away questions of morality, and perhaps giving the best explanation of the poster image: art, according to this film, is about dominance and recognition, and moral distinctions are pointless.
Krista, Olga, Petra, and the Gothic
Early in the film, after the New Yorker interview, Lydia is intercepted in the hall by Whitney, a Smith College graduate who is enamored of Lydia and clumsy at hiding her erotic fixation. When discussing her performance of The Rite of Spring, Lydia says at that performance she recognized “we’re all capable of murder.” Stravinsky indeed merged Eros and Thanatos, but Lydia’s view is more vulgar, complementing Whitney on her purse, holding hands with her a bit long after Whitney reaches out, asking to text Lydia. Later, when Lydia returns to Sharon, she is carrying a new purse recognized as such by the wife. Lydia says it’s a gift from business manager Eliot (Mark Strong). How much of a monster is she?
Krista Taylor, the young woman once an acolyte, now a threat, is under erasure by Lydia – and Francesca, on orders from Lydia. Her emails are removed, although Lydia cannot destroy the many disparaging letters she wrote about Krista to potential employers. Krista commits suicide, which traumatizes Francesca and introduces a chilling level to the drama. Francesca tells Lydia that she “needs to be held.” Lydia at first bristles, until she sees a problem: Francesca cries, saying that she thought Krista “one of us.” And further, that once “there were three of us.” Lydia caresses her naïve charge, saying “yes, but that was before she started making demands.” The narrative here is sketchy, yet horrifically clear: Lydia created a ménage (that seems like a cult) for purposes of control, something that Krista recognized and threatened to shatter. Suicide was the young woman’s only out, seeing Lydia’s ruthlessness. Lydia tells Francesca that she will be replaced by someone more “experienced,” something not surprising to the protégé, who saw herself taking the place of the pathetic Sebastian, already booted (his fawning obsequiousness at his “rotation” says he has no notion of the tyrant’s deviousness).
Darkness falls gradually but decidedly in Tár, as Lydia’s abject inhumanity shows its dimensions. The darkness is in part at the level of setting and mise en scene, the look accomplished by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, who creates a nearly-impenetrable gray-blue murkiness over the final reel of the film, accompanied by Hildur Guðnadōttir’s morose score.
Lydia enters the abyss when she meets Olga (Sophie Kauer), an accomplished young cellist immediately recognized as what the tabloids are calling “fresh meat.” Despite her peasant manner at the dinner table, she is self-possessed, with knowledge of music that matches Lydia’s, and a feminist consciousness absolutely foreign to the maestro. When Olga mentions a hero of feminist revolt in Germany and the Soviet Union, Lydia thinks she refers to another musician. Lydia drops the name of conductor Daniel Barenboim – Olga has no interest in domineering male heroes of the masculinist game in which Lydia has so happily acquiesced.
It is an American failure that audiences, in their pursuit of ‘entertainment,’ find no need to engage with a film. Tár has an appealing nightmare mood as Lydia goes fully mad, but the film doesn’t have much resonance on repeated viewings, much less involve itself conscientiously in public issues.”
Lydia is so captured by Olga that she makes some dangerous slips, like selecting Elgar’s Cello Concerto as the companion piece to Lydia’s treasured Mahler’s Fifth – which she never performs. She knows Olga has performed well the Elgar. Soon, everything Lydia does (like asking Olga if she is “happy” after the first Elgar rehearsal) is a dangerous embarrassment.
The abyss turns literal as the obsessing Lydia takes Olga home, which turns out to be a crumbling shell of a building, its central court in extreme disuse and filled with trash. Lydia runs through the fractured corridors of the building, calling Olga’s name as the film draws too heavily on the classical origins of the maze emblem. Tár becomes a rubble film, reminding us of the Nazi past still present in Europe, of the intertwined nature of the “great European civilized tradition” and the orchestras at the death camps. The final reel is presaged by Lydia’s fall as she frantically pursues the evanescent Olga, seriously injuring one side of her face. She explains the injury as the result of an “attack,” which makes some sense given how Lydia thinks she is under siege.
The downward spiral continues as Lydia has auditory hallucinations. We see her dreams; quivering faces appear in the darkness, including the betrayed wife and a red-haired, faceless woman who may be Krista, along with an aged Asian man who may signify the people exploited by Lydia during her ethnographic “field work.” In a penultimate moment of lunacy, Lydia approaches the Mahler 5 podium, even though she has been jettisoned. She approaches us as the camera retreats; she starts to growl, her face contorting into a wolf – she pushes aside her financier/lackey Eliot Kaplan, her hair now a tangled Medusa mess. The loon is escorted from the premises.
As she faces legal tribunals, angry corporate bosses, and the outraged Sharon, Lydia tries escape into her Staten Island past, where an unpleasant brother calls her by her given name, Linda, and berates her for dumping her working-class origins. That moment is instructive: Lydia cries as she plays a videotape retrieved from a childhood closet. It is Leonard Bernstein, conducting an orchestra during one of his Young People’s Concerts of Sixties television. Does the scene represent how far Lydia has fallen, or her delusions, since perhaps the TV shows were the extent of her instructions by “Lenny”? The moment contrasts Bernstein, the sweet-tempered conductor, with the monster we have watched for almost three hours. If the film is about the brutalizing of the artist by an industry (as some argue), Bernstein is the wrong example.
Lydia’s exile to the Philippines, where she conducts soundtrack music for a videogame called Monster Hunter, is her rock-bottom, especially as we watch her at the “fishbowl” of a massage parlor, with its young Asian women in white robes, numerals printed on the left breast of each (recalling the death camp orchestras), arranged like a small chamber orchestra. Rather than select one, she runs out and pukes – the moment encapsulating her whole adult life.
The horror that is Lydia Tár/Linda Tar might best be illustrated by her relationship with the adopted daughter, Petra. Lydia drives the girl to school, the two reciting “Who Killed Cock Robin?,” the grisliest of nursery rhymes. Petra shouts the lines – as she was instructed? At the school, Lydia takes on the issue of Petra’s bullying by another little girl. Lydia walks, the camera tracking beside her, to the offending child, Lydia becoming Eric von Stroheim. She threatens the girl in German, making us think of the reasons why many Americans figure all German-speakers to be fascists. Cate Blanchett has prominent cheekbones, but they are set rather low in her face, turning her into a grotesque, often when less than sensible. The scene becomes ludicrous because it is so badly conceived, especially in the non-reaction of the threatened child. There is another issue: the Petra storyline invites the idea that LGBTQ+ people are neglectful, bad parents.
Which takes me back to the earlier question: what does this film want to accomplish? As a way of addressing woke culture, it has precious little to say, especially as it irresponsibly conflates the culture with sexual predation, a glaringly different matter, unless the film is aimed at those with grievances about women having too much power. No topic is developed, nor can we accept that Lydia, a mediocrity with many tics, is a genius whose peccadillos must be tolerated, since she, like von Karajan or Levine, is a genius with mammoth contributions. There is so little music in the film there is little reason to undertake this sort of debate, and whatever talent Lydia may have is undercut by all the evidence in the film that she is an unoriginal crackpot.
At this writing, Field has told interviewers that his film is “built for interpretation.” I have long assumed that all artworks, good or bad, invite –demand – interpretation if they are to exist in our culture. Field’s remark suggests that his is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to say, so he merely asserts complexity by his invitations. It is an American failure that audiences, in their pursuit of “entertainment,” find no need to engage with a film. Tár has an appealing nightmare mood as Lydia goes fully mad, but the film doesn’t have much resonance on repeated viewings, much less involve itself conscientiously in public issues.
But there is indeed a “Tár universe,” thus far consisting of a fake documentary, and a “concept album” sponsored by Deutsche Grammophon, consisting of “music from and inspired by the motion picture.” Cate Blanchett is listed alongside Sophie Kauer as a performer (contrary to publicity, there is no evidence in the film that Blanchett has facility with a musical instrument). With people asking if Lydia is a real conductor, the album and “universe” may assist the project, basic to the postmodern legacy, of convincing us to replace the significant with the trivial, or the merely ornamental.
My thanks to my friend Krin Gabbard, who reminded me Robin Wood’s famous concept.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International, where he has published numerous essays.