Author’s Note: It was impossible to parse my thoughts about this film without getting deep into the plot, so major spoilers ahead.
From the moment the film begins, you have a sense that Tár will be a perpetually playful subversion of expectations. Perhaps nothing sets the viewer up for this more than the film’s opening credits sequence where the typical hierarchy of the film’s production flashes on screen in reverse chronological order, beginning with special thanks to shooting locations, catering, and copyright logos and ending with the main cast. This is going to be a familiar story about power, but director Todd Fields has no intention of letting it unfold in a predictable way, choosing instead to embrace an awkward, frustrating, terrifying, and sometimes absurdly funny messiness. For a movie with such grim subject matter, I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did.
I’ll admit, I was one of those people who fully believed that Lydia Tár was a real person when I first saw the biopic-style trailer. Even now, over a month after its release, when you try to look up anything about the movie, something along the lines of “is lydia tar a real person?” will always be in the search bar’s autocomplete. There’s a few obvious reasons why: no text ever appears on screen to let viewers know that this is a fictional story not based on real people or events, and the world of classical music is so small and elite that I’m sure many assumed they had just missed some symphony drama because it never broke into mainstream media.
I would also attribute this confusion both to the script and Cate Blanchette’s captivating execution of the material. Blanchette plays Tár’s egotistical selfishness and narcissistic genius with such an intensity that one can understand how others have gotten caught up in her magnetism and why so many people also got hurt. This is a film that could so easily careen into a satire about pretentious cultural elitism, but the fact that it never does, makes the film’s ultimate message all the more impactful.
As reviews started rolling in, many critics began calling Tár one of the the best movies about #MeToo and cancel culture of the year. I take issue with this particular framing of the film not because I think it’s wrong, but because the film does a much better job of exploring the kinds of sexual misconduct and abusive power dynamics called out by activists in the #MeToo movement than it does exploring what it’s like to be publicly canceled. Take, for instance, a painfully long scene at the start of the film where Tár berates a queer student of color in a class at Juilliard for expressing discomfort at conducting Bach’s music along with other problematic white male composers. In addition to being verbally abusive, Tár repeatedly crosses a line with condescending gestures such as bumping the student’s shoulder and forcing them to sit next to her while she castigates them in front of the class. The singled-out student storms out, leaving Tár rather pleased with what she thought to be a successful defense of the canon. Unbeknownst to her, this dressing down was secretly recorded and ends up on Twitter, where it’s been obviously edited to take Tár’s words out of context, enabling her to decry misinformation and avoid accountability. I’m not sure why Field would present this scene again in this way. It felt like this second edited version undercut the impact of the first, where we saw Tár in all of her uncut, horrible glory.
What the film does succeed in showing, however, is the way power can so easily be abused by those who have it. Although we never actually meet Tár’s victim — former student Krista Taylor — the details of what happened between them are slowly pieced together through slivers of information that are nauseating, yet not surprising. Since we experience this through Társ perspective, it’s made to seem that Krista was a troubled student and a heartbroken fan, not someone groomed into an inappropriate relationship with her mentor. Yet, as Tár tries to clean up her inbox following Krista’s suicide, we learn that Tár’s been blacklisting her from other orchestras and ignoring Krista’s escalating cries for help. The film treats the timeworn question of “can we separate the art from the artist?” like a red herring, redirecting our focus instead to the ways artists can weaponize their cultural authority and legacy for personal gain.
Knowing that Tár’s lesbianism would be part of this film, I braced myself for the potential of seeing the predatory lesbian trope. To my surprise, it never goes there, creating an opportunity for a more nuanced discussion about abuse and power. Tár isn’t portrayed as a hypersexual queer woman with a voracious appetite. Instead, what we see is an embarrassingly predictable pattern of behavior that’s painfully recognizable and embarrassingly predictable. Sex itself is not what drives Tár’s grooming and infidelities. What attracts Tár to other women is their attraction to her genius. It’s heavily implied that this is what happened with Krista; it’s a manipulative dynamic repeated with Tár’s assistant, Francesca. But this pattern falls apart when Tár sets her sights on young new cellist Olga. You watch her try to flirt, even when Olga’s immaturity repulses her, feeding off of scraps of Olga’s admiration. She escalates things by granting Olga favors and goes as far as to take the girl with her to New York, even as allegations of her predatory behavior appear in the headlines. Ultimately, Olga doesn’t fall prey to Tár’s pursuit, either oblivious or not interested in the famous conductor, but this outcome is nothing more than a pyrrhic victory after we’ve watched hours of Tár try every tactic in her narcissistic playbook.
In her review of the film, writer Xochitl Gonzalez describes this film as one of the most “unintentionally” feminist films she’s ever seen. I’m still struggling with applying that label to this film since what makes it such a damning feminist commentary is the characters’ staunch rejection of feminism. Throughout the film, Tár makes it clear that she cares more about the old boys’ network of classical music than she does uplifting her fellow female conductors (in one scene, she suggests allowing men to join her women-only fellowship program because “we’ve sort of proved the point, haven’t we?”). Tár adopts a girlboss attitude when it suits her, when she can leverage her own tokenism for her own fame. Yet, the minute she doesn’t need it, sheprefers being considered one of the boys (she rejects the title of maestra and calls herself her daughter’s “father”). When she asks her mentor for advice on how to address the impending allegations, she get a history lesson about the ways famous male conductors before her hid their sexual misconduct. In her determination to become the best, regardless of gender, Tár’s willing to repeat, defend, and uphold the same misogynistic, toxic masculine behaviors that have long contributed to women’s limited participation as conductors in the classical music world.
As compelling of a character as Tár is, the other women who occupy the supporting roles in her life are equally fascinating in the ways that they become both victims of and complicit in Tár’s actions. In a talk at Film at Lincoln Center, Blanchette and actress Nina Hoss reflect on her role as Tár’s wife, Sharon, someone keen to uphold the beneficial power structures of Tár’s world. When we first meet Sharon, we assume that she’s the typical wife of the genius artist, naive and loyal. Yet, it becomes clear that Sharon quietly notices Tár’s patterns of favoritism and flirtation. Sharon’s not surprised or angry she got cheated on when she learns about Krista; she’s more upset that Tár never warned her and that they didn’t get the chance to strategize. The moment Tár’s predatory behavior can no longer be ignored, Sharon, embarrassed and betrayed, adopts the sympathetic role of the wronged spouse to shield her reputation.
One of the film’s greatest hits is Noémie Merlant as Francesca, whose performance embodies so many frustrations expressed by young people in the arts today. Despite being a talented conductor in her own right, Francesca manages Tár’s affairs like a glorified secretary. Tár takes advantage of Francesca’s idolization, keeping her in this lesser role with endless promises that all of this devotion will pay off. After Krista’s death, a distressed Francesca is told to delete all evidence of Tár’s blacklisting and Krista’s ignored outreach. When she learns that the two young women secretly kept in touch, Tár writes off Francesca’s empathy towards her former peer as disloyalty and retaliates by passing Francesca over for an assistant conductor role she’s been groomed for. Despite the obviously cruel disrespect, Tár is shocked (although the audience isn’t) to find that Francesca quit without saying a word. While it appears that Francesca has disappeared without a trace, she doesn’t entirely go away. Her ghost, like Krista’s, comes back to haunt Tár in the form of damaging emails she sends to Krista’s family for their lawsuit. Francesca’s victimization is important for wrestling with the film’s complex feminist themes, yet I found the abrupt end to her character arc frustrating. I kept waiting for Francesca to come back in a substantive way, to learn more about how her life changed after contributing to Tár’s downfall and the kind of person she became after this tragedy. Was she blacklisted? Did she begin speaking out publicly about her own experiences and on Krista’s behalf? Did she leave classical music altogether? Had she always planned to expose Tár or was this the final straw? As horribly fascinating as it is to be deep inside Tár’s self-centered mind, this was a time when that directorial choice felt especially limiting.
In the end, Tár offers up more questions about power than answers. So much is kept deliberately ambiguous, enabling visitors to speculate on the extent of Lydia’s malfeasance and draw their own conclusions by reading between the lines of action and dialogue. There were multiple moments in the latter half of the film when I kept expecting it to end, but the movie just kept going, forcing us to see her complete fall from grace and the consequences of her actions catching up to her. Tár is ousted from her symphony after she violently crashes a performance. Now in crisis management mode, she withdraws from public life. With this new reputation, the only job she finds is conducting an orchestra in Vietnam. Rather than the stereotypical ‘white woman goes to Asia to find herself’ revelations, we see an ever-proud Tár try to adapt to her new circumstances and endure repeated humiliations. She tries to throw herself back into music, biding her time for a post-cancellation comeback. It’s impossible to tell if Tár feels any remorse or even understands what she did wrong.
Tár is one of those movies that succeeds in the smallest of details — exchanged looks, subtle gestures of discomforting intimacy, pregnant pauses with loaded gazes — that keep the viewer stuck in this unsettling dread that something will go terribly wrong at any moment. Tár’s grip on reality, expressed through sound, falters as she grows increasingly paranoid and begins hearing screams. In an ode to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the metronome replaces the body underneath the floorboards, with its own terrifying ticking. Yet, for all of this built-up impending doom, the film never gives in to the shock value of jump scares. People’s capacity for monstrosity become the biggest terror of them all.