Punkt Kontrapunkt

The Parallels of Maestro, Muse, and Maker in Todd Field’s Tár

illustration by Dani Manning

Under a vermillion November sunset, I drove to the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee to see Tár following a class with the writer Garth Greenwell where he discussed, among other things, creating loathsome characters in autofiction and the messiness of sex. Which is to say, when I plopped down in the dim, anachronistic auditorium, ethics or morality were not at the forefront of my mind. “I’m interested,” Greenwell had confessed an hour earlier, “in situations in which there is nowhere for righteousness to stand.” I, too, find the destabilizing quicksand of desire and personal politics to be a particularly fecund place from which to think, and write. And it was this urge, to be artistically overwhelmed, that underscored my mindset as the first image of Lydia Tár (played by an extraordinary Cate Blanchett) appeared, captured asleep on an iPhone by an unknown observer who refers to her (affectionately? condescendingly?) over text message as “girl.” The foregrounding of the phone’s screen suggests an animal in the crosshairs—vulnerable, beautiful, and totally unawares. Who is the hunter and who is the hunted?, the film’s opening formally asks. 

Tár is a film fascinated with our post-#MeToo era’s acute attention to gender, sex, and the ever-expanding spectrum of violence within interpersonal relationships. When Tár notes in an opening interview with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (playing himself, and thus drawing our attention to a doubling of performances within the diegesis) that what her mentor Bernstein gave her was kavanah, the Hebrew word for “attention to meaning or intent,” Gopnik responds with a homonym, an aural doubling, wryly noting that Kavanaugh will have a slightly different meaning for the American audience sitting before them. In other words, this is a film about abuses of power as much as it is Tár’s live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which propels much of Field’s plot. And it is a film indebted to, if not plagiaristic of, the formal gestures of auteurs like Stanley Kubrick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whom Field borrows from as liberally as Lydia Tár eschews engaging with gender politics throughout the narrative. 

What emerges from these intersecting, problematic narrative and formal threads is a scintillating tapestry of a deeply complex, unlikeable fictional woman and a complex, perhaps also unlikeable, male director. Ergo, it seems impossible to write about Tár’s characters and narrative without also engaging in Field’s cinephilia that borders on a kind of colonial theft of images and references. And while critics like Amy Taubin have said it is “the most racist shit I have ever seen in a serious movie,” I would argue not against this dismissive opprobrium, but alongside it by suggesting that this is a film still worthy of existence, albeit one which warrants constructive, critical engagement despite, or perhaps because of, its flaws. 

In an interview with Slate, the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh grimly reflected on our zeitgeist, where “art is being laden with this burden of having to always represent characters in a way that’s going to support whatever sociopolitical ideal is in fashion at the moment. I’m all for people evolving. But I think that if we start putting that kind of pressure on art, we turn ourselves into robots with no imagination and no freedom.” I go to art, like I go to sex, to learn something new about myself, through the intensity and imagination of touch, affective or otherwise. As Greenwell told my autofiction class, “Sex is thinking and thinking is sex.” Where either activity leads our bodies and minds can often be rhizomatic, seemingly senseless or instinctual. In watching Tár, this cinematic experience laid bare how susceptible I am to the seduction of wide frames and long takes and of women who are driven, eloquent, and also very bad. Which is to say, like any erotic experience, it challenged me as much as it allured me with Blanchett’s performance, the costumes and sets, and Field’s frames. 

The question of likeability recurs as an arbitrary (and paternalistic) marker of success for women, fictional or real. But I don’t need to understand or befriend Lydia Tár, like Rex Reed, who complains, “So much passion has been distilled in the character of Lydia Tár that you want to like her more.” People, myself included, do things that are nonsensical or unforgivable, not just once, but often. We are all, at one point or another, unlikeable, even unforgivable. To see a character like Lydia Tár onscreen feels both cathartic and thorny—relieving to see someone who can be selfish and opportunistic without apology; nettling to see someone who is not just unlikeable but repeatedly predatory and punishing, as the film slowly reveals. Midway through the film, a former student of Tár’s dies by suicide, one whom she allegedly coerced into a sexual relationship with the promise to aid the young woman’s career. Tár deletes the emails of the former pupil, insisting that her assistant do so as well. Tár never admits any wrongdoing, nor does the film provide any insight into her interiority or motives. 

Maybe it is simply a personal penchant—and, like any kink, mundane when divorced from context—but while some critics, like Reed, criticize Tár’s unknowability, I find a character like Tár fascinating not despite her opaqueness, but because of it. I don’t need to know about her childhood (beyond the chilling sequence when she sits in her childhood home watching old VHS tapes of male conductors, mouthing their monologues alongside them, wearing a medal from grade school around her porcelain neck), nor her history with her wife, and concertmaster, and adopted child. What I know of Tár is that she is an obsessive, exacting, and ruthless woman. How her obsession for success at all costs manifests for the first two hours of the film is enough to enthrall me, which is not the same as love. The montage in the opening of the film where the tailor Egon Brandstetter measures her monochromatic suits at his atelier, or Mahler’s records are flung one by one onto her varnished wood floors, reveals to me the carefully curated performance of one at the top of her game, a power and prestige that can often be enticing—until the insidious underbelly of corruption reveals itself, removing the lustrous patina of visual pleasure. 

Field underscores Tár’s curation, her performance of self, through the motif of seeing her living spaces and her body through the screen of an iPhone held by an unknown entity. High-profile people exist in a ubiquitous online hall of mirrors and screens. And those who are constantly under watch change their behavior accordingly, as evidenced by Michel Foucault’s writing on the panopticon. Tár’s flick of her starched cuffs or balletic hand gestures suggest a well-rehearsed public persona. But it is unclear what the film’s stance is on such unwavering digitized scrutiny in the 21st century. When Tár visits a Juilliard class, Field films it in a taut ten-minute long take, the camera’s choreography moving in tandem with Tár through the space. Furthermore, Field chooses, like so much of the film, to render this moment through a wide-angle lens: everything is technically in focus, even if the discussion at hand is messy. Yet, later in the film, the moment resurrects online in an altered and edited version that illuminates not just Tár’s unwillingness to engage in identity politics but to actively demean those that do. To view the edited clip when we have witnessed the entire moment in-scene puts us in an uncomfortable position of aligning ourselves with a character whose politics may not necessarily match our own. 

The choice to double the moment with such blatant alteration also suggests that the audience share in both Tár’s frustration and dismissiveness of what ultimately amounts to clickbait, however warranted the criticism against her may be. As she scoffs at Juilliard when a student presses her on her affinity for white, male composers as opposed to musicians of color, “Don’t be so eager to be offended.” The edited footage’s presence thus becomes meta and forked: the students should not be eager to be offended, nor should Field’s audience. And yet, the moment at Juilliard is perhaps more insidious through the long take, as Tár slowly and methodically in real time humiliates young student Max, who professes to not be that into Bach. Ultimately, I’m uncertain what Field’s intent is with juxtapositions like these. Whether he’s merely flirting with an impulse to humanize Tár’s reprehensible impulses or to lay them bare, Blanchett’s performance does not suffer from any insecurity or indecision. 

Field himself has admitted that he wrote this role specifically for Blanchett, and that, had she not taken the role, the film “would have never seen the light of day.” Her performance recalls some of her best roles (Elizabeth, Carol, Notes on a Scandal) where you forget you’re watching Cate Blanchett the star, so wholly is she costumed in the character. With her sleek hair brushed behind her ears and a slouch, at times, like the scroll of a violin, Blanchett is as physical (and physically imposing) an actor as Robert DeNiro or Uma Thurman. Blanchett prowls as Tár, her expression so catlike we can almost hear the growl, or purr. It is the moments when she conducts onscreen that she transfixes our attention: simultaneously contained and kinetic in response to the caesuras or eruptions of sound. In one scene, she conducts by exaggerating the gesture of running, arms flung up and down in a violent embodiment of the impassioned score. The performance recalls Giorgio Agamben’s Notes on Gesture, when he writes, “The gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language.” If “sex is thinking and thinking is sex” for Garth Greenwell, Blanchett’s performance intimates that conducting is equally thinking through, and with, the body. 

The film joins a recent onslaught of post-#MeToo movies like The Assistant (2019), Bombshell (2019), Promising Young Woman (2020), or She Said (2022), but with a white, lesbian cis woman as the serial abuser as written by a white, straight cis man. The politics of the body, both onscreen and off, are ones Tár cannot help but conjure. Tár describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian” and insists she has nothing to complain about when it comes to gender bias in the workplace. Field’s film speaks to a multiplicity of privileges, and Field’s talent, like Tár’s, is due in part to those auteurs who have come before him, as well as his cultural and fiscal capital. But, I’m less interested in Field’s decisions regarding his protagonist’s gender and sex, and more in his rendering of the material. While Tár mirrors herself, through wardrobe and in photoshoots, after those who have previously conducted Mahler, like Claudio Abbado (intimating his gestures, his dress, and even purchasing his maroon, finely-sharpened pencils), Field also adopts the formal moves of famous auteurs; yet, a woman costuming herself like her male muses does not necessarily carry the same connotations as a white male director appropriating the images of others. Though Field and Tár both use this doubling in their favor, it is a false equivalency to compare the two. 

Throughout, Field promiscuously cites his mentor, Stanley Kubrick. The scene where Tár prepares for bed in her New York hotel bathroom evokes Nicole Kidman’s various states of dress and undress in Eyes Wide Shut. Furthermore, when Tár tells Sebastian, her assistant conductor, that his retirement is imminent, Field frames them in a long shot and long take like so many from The Shining, where the wide-angle lens and long shot belie the audience’s access to all the information. There is something deeply unsettling and uncanny about the camera’s stillness in moments of emotional and psychic unrest. And while Field’s borrowing is the marker of an insecure (or cinephilic) filmmaker, it also foregrounds that he does know what moves formally work. 

However, more importantly, there’s an additional charged moment of what feels like cinephilic, colonial theft. In one dream sequence, Tár floats on a bed in the Amazon as she slowly catches fire. An identical image occurs in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film Blue (2018). While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it is this possible plagiarism from a renowned Thai director that evokes Amy Taubin’s criticism of the film’s potential racist overtones for me, compounded by the film’s conclusion when Tár, banished by her wife and former job, moves to Southeast Asia to conduct for the video game series Monster Hunter. Is living in an indeterminate Asian country where Tár barely interacts with anyone native to the culture meant to concretize her utter removal from “good” society? Couldn’t a place like Las Vegas achieve a similar sentiment without the strange racial dynamic that we’re left to reckon with at the end? 

Yet, while I do question Field’s promiscuous citations of others’ creative labor, I ultimately find the final scene to be congruent with what Field has heretofore revealed about Tár’s character and past. Thus, here is where Taubin and I both overlap and differ. Tár’s name is not Lydia, but Linda, and Linda grew up in a blue-collar, wood-paneled home. By replicating so convincingly the maestros that came before her, she has achieved what is by and large an American myth: upward mobility. To return to these less-than-auspicious environs is where she finally hits rock bottom, scolded by her brother while surrounded by dark, dank ‘70s decor. The costume of Linda playing Lydia playing Bernstein or Abbado comes off as we watch her ventriloquize Bernstein on the VHS tapes. At home, she is dressed down to the child in the audience, yearning for the career she cannot yet—or now ever—have. Whereas the heart of Taubin’s critique seems to lie in the interpretation of Lydia moving to a developing country as her downfall, I read the final scene as a restart: a moment where Lydia sheds the past like a mask, or perhaps puts on a new one. At least in the end, she maintains her passion and vocation—that is, to continue to conduct in perpetuity, albeit for a media conglomerate, rather than the Berlin Philharmonic. 

Mapping personal and professional demise (or rebirth) onto the backdrop of an unnamed, non-Western culture does raise racist, imperialist notions articulated in books such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Marlow expresses interest in the “blank spaces” of Africa, as of yet “untouched” by white hands or coffers. Towards the end, Tár enters a massage parlor and surveys the “fishbowl” of women for purchase. It is crucial to foreground that the women in the fishbowl are not white, but Asian, thus evoking Sara Ahmed’s theorizing of how “the Orient” is so often sexualized by the Westerner’s gaze, and that the “directness toward this other reminds us that desire involves a political economy in the sense that it is distributed: the desire to possess, and to occupy, constitutes others not only as objects of desire, but also as resources for world making.” The massage parlor ultimately confirms her wife’s accusation from earlier: that all of Tár’s relationships are transactional. But it also, in tandem with Ahmed’s writing, showcases how both Tár and Field are guilty of this desire to possess the racialized other: for sex or for plot development in the world-making of the film. Tár’s exploitation of this foreign country’s geography and its people underscores the overwhelming urge to cancel her (or Field or both) once and for all. But Field also seems to suggest that Tár’s overall loss of capital (both fiscal and cultural) was the ultimate downfall—and she’ll feel this loss most acutely in suburban Staten Island as Linda, though her disgrace, wrongdoings, and lechery will follow her anywhere else she goes. 

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Field’s second film, Little Children (2006), is, among other things, about what it means to grow up landlocked in suburbia and loveless marriages, still yearning for a future that is increasingly impossible to attain. Field frames the first shot, of a landscape from a train window, as a cacophony of ticking clocks steadily rises in volume. In this way, the film is also about time. While Gopnik tells Tár that most people still consider conductors to be “human metronomes,” she admits that while this is true, “keeping time is no small thing.” 

What does it mean to keep time? And furthermore, to be of the times? For Field, his privilege and power have afforded him the time and money to make a taut, psychological drama whose formal moves are indelibly wrought, even while indebted to others who have come before him. For Tár, her privilege and power have inoculated her heretofore from the changing times, where men like Bach are out of vogue, and sexual impropriety and abuse are both legally and ethically off-limits. Aurally and psychically, Tár is out of sync with the world, and if we consider the film as a ghost story, as the filmmaker Ben Balcom suggested to me over Manhattans, then the past must wrestle in perpetuity with the present, until Tár can exorcize the demon that is herself.  

Field’s penchant for exploring the psyches of those our society would deem monsters (be it pedophiles or predators) asks us to sit and spend time with these characters who are human and horrific, mysterious and mundane. In this way, Tár conducting for Monster Hunter at the end is the ultimate irony: Lydia, the monster, finally joins the 21st century, where predation gets displaced into the virtual realm, violence is both news and entertainment, and music is a marketable commodity rather than an art. Ergo, whether we like the film or not, Tár is a film of our times—a counterpoint to, or perpetrator of, ongoing conversations surrounding identity, privilege, race, theft, and abuse. The impossibility to discern which is what arrests and agitates us, further instigating these unwieldy albeit urgent conversations. Tár moves, like the first part of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz: stormily, with the greatest vehemence.