Director: Todd Field (USA). Year of Release: 2022
Tár opens with a statement of intent. We see a lot of credits – about 7 minutes, I read somewhere. Everyone from the key grip to whoever it was who made the tea. This is followed by a 15 minute interview between the fictional composer Lydia Tár and New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, playing himself. Look at us, it seems to be trying to say. We are important and discussing Serious Things like classical music. If you don’t enjoy the nearly 3 hours which are to follow, it must be your fault.
We move swiftly into the scene which has already attracted a lot of discussion. Lydia is teaching a class of would-be composers in Juilliard college. One of them pronounces that he doesn’t listen to Bach, because as a PoC pansexual, he doesn’t think that Bach has anything to say to him. Lydia starts by challenging his idea, but this is just a run up to her verbally destroying him. She is abusive, unsympathetic, and, you might say, abuses her authority as a teacher to make herself look good.
This scene contains all that is good and bad about the film. It enables Cate Blanchette, as Lydia, to impress in a way that she will throughout the film. Hers is a fantastic performance. And yet the scene betrays a tendency to straw manning. There are legitimate arguments about over-emphasis on composers like Bach, it’s just that none of them are put in the film. And the person opposing them is not just a woman but also a lesbian. We are just not watching a fair fight.
For such a long film, there are very few protracted scenes of the orchestra in action. This is a pity, as Blanchette is thoroughly convincing as a virtuoso conductor and pianist. It’s partly in her long fingered hands, but there’s much more. The way in which she throws her body around while her right hand beats time makes you think that she’s put in the effort for this. As does her command of German (top tip: if someone pronounces people’s names right they have been paying attention).
To the film’s credit, although it seems in awe of Lydia, this is, at least in part, because of her awfulness. As well as being a composer, she is very much a boss, and she treats her assistant Francesca with disdain. She is occasionally capable of showing love to her wife Sharon and more often to their daughter Petra, but most of the time she is just too busy for them. Yet she remains somehow slightly attractive as someone who knows her own mind and won’t play by the rules.
Lydia’s other fault is less forgivable, but for most of the time only hinted at. She abuses her power relationship with her underlings to facilitate inappropriate relationships. Several scenes include her telling Francesa to make sure she’s deleted all e-mails with a former student (and, we assume, lover) who has committed suicide. Some criticism has said that there are so few good leading female roles that Lydia’s predatory behaviour reflects badly on all women. On this point, I disagree.
When a Russian cello player, Olga, joins the orchestra, Lydia is intrigued. Olga talks about Clara Zetkin and International Women’s Day, while Lydia looks on blankly. When Lydia takes Olga out for a meal, and urges her to eat the salad, as it’s pretty much the only vegetarian option, Olga orders veal. Before long, Olga has received a rapid promotion within the orchestra, and Lydia is taking her to New York to carry out the bag carrying role normally taken by the recently departed Francesca.
This is all leading towards an unsatisfying conclusion which is difficult to comment on without plot spoilers. I’ll do my best to avoid giving too much away, but if you don’t want to know anything in advance, it’s best to stop reading now, at least until after you’ve seen the film for yourself. But let’s just say that a badly edited piece of video footage and old allegations which may or may not be true, are about to contribute to Lydia’s downfall.
Let’s start with what I can live with. I actually like the fact that Lydia isn’t a saintly figure. I think this gives more depth, not just to her, but also the portrayal of all women in film. She is neither entirely good nor bad – she is an obvious pain in the arse, but most of the things that bring her crashing down have nothing directly to do with this. Sharon tells he that she can live with the infidelities – what she is annoyed about is the dishonesty and the lack of warning about what might happen.
And now here’s the problem (again, I’ll try to avoid plot spoilers but the hypersensitive should look away now). Tár is a film which is trying to actively intervene in a current debate about Cancel Culture. And while it, laudably, acknowledges that Lydia does herself no favours with her abrasive behaviour, the film at least hints at the view that political correctness has gone too far, and what with these kids and their mobile phones and social media, you can’t say anything these days.
Does this matter? Should this matter? In my informed opinion, well, yes and no. Firstly, the film is ambiguous enough to argue that it has a quite different message. Nonetheless, this is how it came across to me. Secondly, while a film can certainly be both politically reactionary and artistically good, a central plot point of Tár hinges on the belief that the real danger to freedom of speech is woke kids. This questions the plausibility of the whole film, and was the point when I got off board.
As a showpiece for great acting, Tár is unmissable. But it’s excessive length, and it’s tendency to polemicise on issues where it’s own credibility is dubious, means that it is deeply flawed. Worth a go, but not the masterpiece that some people are proclaiming.