Tár: The Character is the Message
Warning: the following review contains spoilers for the movie Tár.
It's no surprise that "cancel culture" (which might be more accurately termed a culture of accountability) has appeared, either implicitly or explicitly, in many recent American films across various genres. Barbarian, for example, starts off as a taut thriller that throws two strangers, a man and a woman, in a threatening and confined space but soon changes its focus entirely to an actor who's been cancelled after rape allegations. That brawniest of action directors, Ridley Scott, had his #MeToo moment with The Last Duel, which mimics the structure of Rashomon to depict the rape culture of 14th century France (implying that not much has changed since then). Promising Young Woman hammered home its rhetorical points with sledgehammer obviousness, manipulating genre and narrative style to deliver its hot-button moralizing. Last Night in Soho was hardly more subtle in showing how the sins of the past fester into the present and the future. Whether horror, historical epic, or revenge fantasy, these movies and others grapple with one of Hollywood's greatest foundational sins (which dates back at least as far back as 1920, when Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted of raping and accidentally killing actress Virginia Rappe).
The aforementioned movies present their themes with varying levels of power and nuance, but all of them feature structural or aesthetic devices to unambiguously condemn their environments of abuse and privilege. In other words, the filmmakers make their voices clearly heard, perhaps nervous to retain an element of ambiguity surrounding this most sensitive topic. Barbarian underscores the villainy of one character by having him heave a woman off the top of a water tower, presumably to her death. The Last Duel incorporates rhetorical points into its chapter titles, leaving no doubt that the female character Marguerite's account of the story is the true one. Promising Young Woman ends by delivering punishment to its misogynist villains in a manner that would have seemed contrived during the heyday of the Production Code. Finally, Last Night in Soho crams mind-numbing voiceover exposition and flashbacks to explain its cycle of violence and retribution (but tacks on a happy ending to suggest that the cycle can be averted).
It's not necessarily a bad thing that such films state their moral perspectives so bluntly: denouncing a culture of sexual abuse shouldn't be radical, but these movies surely thought they were noble for proclaiming such liberal-minded messages. Even if you admire their conclusions, though, one wishes such films left more space for ambiguity, complexity, the messiness of everyday life. The new movie Tár achieves such nuance primarily by presenting its moral lessons through its main character, allowing ideas about power, entitlement, abuse, and moral reckoning to emerge organically through a supremely flawed persona. As embodied by Cate Blanchett, the character of Lydia Tár is effective because she behaves with believable callousness, making the same mistakes we've seen so often, either in scandalous news stories or our own personal lives. The indictment is harrowing because Tár comes alive as a flesh-and-blood person, instead of being presented as a mouthpiece for the filmmakers' preconceived arguments.
As the film begins, Lydia Tár is one of the most esteemed conductors and composers in the world, preparing to lead the Berlin Philharmonic in her "white whale" symphony: Mahler's Fifth. We learn this (and discover a great deal about Tár's backstory) in a long, opening discussion between Lydia and The New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, who casually brings up her past as a mentee of Leonard Bernstein and a student cataloguing the indigenous music of tribes in the Amazon. (The latter hints at Tár's willingness to exploit others for her own benefit, which will become one of the predominant themes in the film.) The fact that Tár begins with a lengthy, silent opening credits crawl, followed by a patiently depicted dialogue that goes on much longer than we expect it to, almost seems overly aloof, distancing the audience right from the start; but at a certain point the slow pace and intricate detail of this opening feel like a refreshing counterbalance to what we usually see in American cinema.
Tár's artistry and erudition seem almost untouchable, conveyed through Blanchett's enjoyably caustic performance. She storms through the halls of the philharmonic, respected (and feared) by musicians and colleagues alike. She unthinkingly takes advantage of her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), whose patience and humility only seem neverending. She returns home to her apprehensive wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), after ignoring her calls for several days while she was away; Lydia is sure to remind Sharon to take her medication promptly, which might seem loving at first but is soon revealed to be a superior form of control. Tár, in other words, appears to be on top of the world, a vaunted position that easily gives way to abuse and subjugation, as is made clear by her allegiances with the aging white men in the world of classical music who blithely apologize for their own misdeeds and those of their predecessors (such as the turbulent relationship between Mahler and his wife, Alma Schindler).
An early scene offers a complicated snapshot of Tár's attitude toward cultural privilege and identity politics. Teaching a class at Julliard, Tár instructs a conducting student who describes themselves as BIPOC and pangender and who refuses to conduct the works of Bach (partially because he sired over 20 children with various women). She aggressively scoffs at the student in response, ridiculing the artists who they do find culturally acceptable. One must go beyond the identity of the creator, Tár argues, to discover the truth of the artwork, which exists outside of the artist. Of course, she presents this haughty lesson through grandiloquent aphorisms: "The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity." There's no easy way to feel about this scene, which is both incisive and painfully funny: you might agree that the student's view of socially sanctioned artwork is narrowminded while fuming over Tár's badgering of an individual for whom cultural identity is of the utmost importance. In other words, the scene (its dialogue, its blocking, its performances, its camerawork, which is almost entirely done through one long take) doesn't tell you how to feel, unlike the movies listed above, which have a certain self-congratulatory pride in the transparency of their messages. (This becomes even more true when covert video of this classroom lesson is leaked by a student as supposed proof of Tár's retrograde worldview; it is possible to see her as both victim and perpetrator.)
That kind of messy ambiguity, in which moral judgments are not as black-and-white as they often are in our newly hyperaware culture, can be hard to take. That's why, I think, critics like Richard Brody in The New Yorker allege that the film celebrates Tár, painting her as martyr and scapegoat. As he sometimes does, Brody seems to have prefabricated his arguments and then misshaped the film to align with his assumptions. The misleading claims in Brody's review, I would argue, reveal more about his own perspective than the film's – namely, his discomfort regarding a movie that refuses to shout its themes of power, victimization, and consequence as loudly and transparently as possible. Such easy moralizing may neatly categorize works of art as P.C. or not, but it doesn't respect the actual complexity of human behavior.
The primary mistruth in Brody's review is that Tár never makes it clear whether Lydia committed the acts that she's accused of, but implications to that effect are provided early on. The turning point is when Tár deletes all emails received from or sent to Krista Taylor, a former member of her fellowship program, who has been unable to find work at established concert venues because Tár has warned potential employers of Krista's "volatile" behavior. The implication is made clearer when Krista sends Lydia a copy of the book Challenge by Vita Sackville-West – a novel about the writer's relationship with another woman, Violet Keppel, which Tár promptly throws in the trash (hardly the behavior of an innocent person). After Taylor commits suicide, the truth about Tár's sexual relationships with other young women under her circle of influence – including her current assistant, Francesca – comes to light. (Small details convincingly depict Lydia's destructive pattern, like a red handbag that's suddenly in her possession after a fling with a young woman who owns the same purse – a revealing development that's never explicated in the dialogue and would be easy to miss.) Admittedly, Tár never confesses to these abusive relationships and there are no explicit portrayals of them provided through flashback; one imagines the cringe-inducingly obvious scenes that might have been a result of this approach. Our experience as the audience is thus analogous to any other accusation of sexual impropriety leveled against a famous figure, which is why each viewer's response to the film and its main character – whether they condemn or sympathize with Tár – says as much about the viewer as it does about the movie itself.
Once the facts about Tár's past enter the cultural discourse, her downfall is swift and humiliating. She is protested at book readings and abandoned by a young cellist (Sophie Kauer) who seemingly uses her relationship with Lydia to gain power and prestige, much in the same way that Tár did early in her ascendant career. Lydia's wife Sharon leaves her, accusing her of numerous infidelities and of treating every relationship like a transaction (probably the clearest indication in the film that the accusations against Tár are factual). Fired by the Berlin Philharmonic, Lydia is sent to lead an orchestra in southeast Asia. But everywhere are reminders of her cruelty, her mistakes, her sins, haunting her from within as well as without. Keith Uhlich rightfully claims that it's hard to tell whether Tár treats her character arc as "a grand tragedy or a cosmic joke," but I would argue that it does both simultaneously, which points to the bitter irony of life and the self-destruction we bring upon ourselves.
Tár certainly isn't perfect – some subplots, like Lydia's intimidation of a playground bully who torments her daughter, Petra, seem extraneous and overly pat – and its cultural signifiers can be questionable. (Why is being sent to Thailand seen as the nadir of Lydia's ostracization?) But it's sharp, sprawling, and alive with ideas in ways that are consistently surprising and affecting. Among all the emotional and psychological fallout, Tár conveys a love of music and the creative process through purely visual and aural means, ensuring that the film never becomes too glib in its takedown of this character. (One simple shot in which an extreme close-up of timpani mallets is contrasted with Lydia's image, out-of-focus on the right side of the frame, is a bold, concise depiction of this poignant idea.) How easy it is, the movie suggests, for the artistic aspirations of our youth to be clouded by the temptations of power.
Tár has been lauded as a showcase for Cate Blanchett in a rich and complicated role (for which she learned to play piano and conduct an actual orchestra), not to mention committed performances by a wonderful international cast. That's all true, but the aesthetic of Tár is equally impressive, as the almost emotionless tranquility of the early parts of the film become more chaotic and expressionistic as the movie progresses. (The style initially emulates Kubrick, then moves closer to Kieslowski.) This precise craftsmanship, along with the restraint in allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about Lydia's actions, make Tár the best film to date about cancel culture, though describing it in such a way feels limiting. More broadly, it is a story of power and privilege breeding destruction, ultimately depriving a heavily flawed person of the passion that gives their life meaning. Despite the political undercurrents, that's a humanistic tale, not a moralistic one.
11/15/2022 09:05:01 am
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