This review essay discusses plot points throughout Tár and responds to reviews that do the same, so if you wish to watch without being spoiled please stop reading now.
Todd Field’s Tár is less a movie about “cancel culture,” as some critics have suggested, than it is a movie obsessed with power dynamics.
In the film’s opening moments—a montage of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) being fitted for a suit before taking part in a discussion on the nature of conducting with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik—Field establishes her expertise. She not only explains to the layman like myself how composers operate and what they bring to the table (it’s not just keeping time, but it’s not not that either), she does so in classically appointed attire. She sounds the part; she looks the part; she is the part.
And that expertise extends to her Juilliard classroom, where she dresses down Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a self-described BIPOC of indeterminate gender, in front of the rest of the class for rejecting the work of the dread dead white male Bach (he was a misogynist, dontcha know) in favor of modernist, atonal drivel. Max cannot identify with this dinosaur, so like any child, he is lashing out by rejecting tradition and embracing modernity.
Lydia is having none of it: The role of the artist is not to segregate by race, gender, or any other marker but to understand the grand universality of art. Discordant gibberish might seem interesting because it sounds different from the soaring strings and thundering piano chords of the classic symphonists, but if the composers themselves aren’t sure what the music is saying, well, how can we interpret it?
Humiliated, Max storms out of the classroom, calling her a “fucking bitch” as he goes. And, importantly, he’s not wrong. Neither is she, at least in theory. Those of us who have tired of the philistinism of the Maxes of this world undoubtedly involuntarily nodded at least once or twice while she was laying the smack down. It is cathartically bitchy, but whether he—or, as we just know footage of this moment will “resurface” during Tár’s later troubles, she—is best served by being this cathartically bitchy in so public a setting is a different question.
Regardless of the wisdom of her decision, Lydia has the power, so she uses it. Just as she uses her power as an adult later on to threaten with disappearance a little girl who has been kicking her daughter’s shins. It is another moment of bitchy catharsis that any parent will silently cheer even as we understand that, you know, you just can’t do this. But “can” and “can’t” are transactional qualifiers for Tár. She will consult with the orchestra members when an assistant conductor needs to be replaced—but only to the extent contractually required. She will tolerate lunch with Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), a wealthy admirer whose funds pay for the fellowship she runs and the orchestras she oversees, and will indulge his fantasies of being a conductor himself—but only in the hopes of acquiring money and private plane travel.
Tár’s haughtiness is excused because she is so good at what she does; genius grants privileges. But privilege-taking can go too far, and there are hints around the edges that something is wrong in Lydia’s sphere of influence. Her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), is nervous about the emails she’s been getting from former protégée Krista (Sylvia Flote), a lovesick girl who seems to believe she and Tár had a relationship and that the conductor is punishing the student for some violation of it. A belief Francesca also seems to share after the girl commits suicide. And a belief we might be inclined to hold as well when we get a glimpse of Lydia’s email outbox, in which rests evidence that Lydia has gone out of her way to torpedo Krista’s* chances with every symphony, major and minor, in the world.
Field shows great restraint here; we get flashes of Krista in Lydia’s dreams and little more. We see her reflected in news coverage and long-past conversations, but get no concrete information about what happened. When Lydia and an old teacher rue that accusations are now as good as evidence when it comes to ruining someone’s life, it’s the sort of thing we, the audience, are left unsure how to evaluate. Is Lydia nervous that an unfounded accusation will sink her or nervous that evidence will surface to give the accusation founding?
All of which is to say that I think critics of the film who pigeonhole it as an “anti-cancel-culture film” are reading shallowly. Richard Brody’s review sums up this view: “Tár is a regressive film that takes bitter aim at so-called cancel culture and lampoons so-called identity politics.” You may have guessed from the “so-calleds” that Brody doesn’t approve of even acknowledging the existence of either phenomenon; while it’s his prerogative to stick his head in the sand about the deleterious effects of both identity politics’ impact on the arts and cancel culture’s ability to destroy lives more broadly, his frustrated hand-waving here misses Field’s point.
Which is that Tár may well have deserved what she got. Because this isn’t a “cancel culture” film, really, but a #MeToo film. And while there is undoubtedly some overlap in how those phenomena have interacted with one another, you can broadly separate them thusly: #MeToo was about rooting out power-based abuses, while “cancel culture” is shorthand for people who are unfairly targeted and had their lives ruined as a result. Which is to say that Lydia Tár is more Harvey Weinstein than Justine Sacco.
And while the most notorious #MeToo cases have been those involving figures from pop culture and politics, the fine arts have not been immune. Tár has no shortage of real-life parallels, as some of the world’s most prominent classical musicians and conductors have been fired or forced into retirement over #MeToo allegations. Indeed, a couple of these incidents are name-checked in the film.
Even if her predations do not rise to the level of James Levine’s or Harvey Weinstein’s, Lydia’s general arrogance is enough to cheer for the comeuppance she receives in the film’s closing half hour. Stripped of her position at the Berlin Philharmonic, cut off from her wife and child, scorned by the working-class family she fled in her early years, Lydia rediscovers herself in music. In the universality of notes and tones and beats, melody and harmony and patterns, the way they can move you to emotions beyond words.
Again, Field plays it close to the vest here. It is not entirely clear how earnest or ironic this closing section is. Should we share or mock the tears that flow while Tár watches old footage of Leonard Bernstein rhapsodizing about music’s power? Should we snigger at or sympathize with her shoddy accommodations in an unnamed Asian nation, where she has been reduced to guest-conducting? The punchline that ends the film can be read as either a meanspirited jape or a recognition that music must be allowed to transcend traditional notions of class and quality. I won’t spoil that last joke here; all I’ll suggest is that it feels like a synthesis of Lydia’s earlier fight with the pangender dork, a melding of the beauty of classical music and modernity’s drive to segregate and find meaning in identity.
Stripped of her institutional power, she must reclaim and rediscover the power of music. It is a lesson anyone involved in the petty fights that consume so much attention in the cultural discourse would do well to learn.
*Apologies: I meant Krista, not Francesca here. It’s Krista’s chances that were torpedoed by Lydia, hence Lydia’s potential guilt in her suicide.