I think all feminists should be bothered by that kind of deception.
Tár (Todd Field 2022)
What is music? is it, as conductor Marin Alsop would have it, a force of unity, or as director Todd Field suggests through the character of fictional conductor Lydia Tár, a configuration of power? Field’s movie and Cate Blanchett’s performance as Tár, a reptilian celebrity conductor, has been heaped with praise, whispering of inevitable future awards; Blanchett already got a Golden Globe for the role. Critics love her. In The Independent, Clarisse Loughrey says Blanchett’s performance’ functions as a total culmination’, And Danny Leigh in the Financial Times describes her as ‘wildly magnetic’. Arguably, in fact, Blanchett delivers the overperformance of a lifetime, where an Instagram authenticity is rendered manicured and stylised, every gesture inflected with a twitch, every line delivered with a pause for facial rigor mortis to signal calculation, the words of an actress. But — what does Blanchett’s character represent?
In 2017 in her Golden Globes speech, Meryl Streep defined an instinct to humiliate from a public platform that filtered down into everyone’s life, granting permission ‘for other people to do the same thing.’ Field’s movie pics up confidently on contemporary concerns around the power abuses of manipulative narcissists, those who make the news, and suspects who lurk ominously, yet to be unmasked. But, by casting Tár as a women Field denies who those people usually are — men hiding in plain sight. Such a woman’s visibility in the microcosm of the professional music world, a person who cannot normally exist because of the macrocosm of patriarchal oppression. We may, in the 21st century, assume her ubiquity, but there is no woman principle of a major European orchestra such as the Berlin Philharmonic.
However, Tár does have a unique and specific precedent. And she is connected to this person via several random life details; her sexuality, adopted children, and being a protégé of Leonard Bernstein. Tár, the fictional conductor, who has risen like rich cream to the top, in these respects equates with Marin Alsop, a pioneer who circumvented the system, forming an independently funded orchestra of women to prove her metal and finally attain her place on the podium as principal conductor before the Baltimore Philharmonic, a feat, shockingly, for a woman, without parallel. Alsop’s story is not of one glass ceiling but layer upon layer of obstruction and negativity. When, after a lifetime of advocacy for women in music, Alsop saw Field’s movie, she said, ‘I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian (…) There are so many men — actual, documented men — this film could have been based on but, instead, it puts a woman in the role but gives her all the attributes of those men.’
It seems the only reason Tár is a woman is so her students can call her a ‘fucking bitch’; despite her lofty status, she can still be objectified and abused, reminded that she cannot ever discount the threat of nonconsensual violation, her authority gone. The association with Alsop is indeed a travesty because Tár is really Herbert von Karajan, who led the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years. He got away with it despite being denounced for misogyny, callous harassment, and extramarital affairs. But Tár might just as well be Harvey Weinstein or Garry Glitter; the movie’s dénouement favours the latter. Her unravelling comes with the exposure of unsuitable infidelities and callous abuses of power. Her downfall should be all such people’s fate. Perhaps in Field’s thinking, Tár’s flaws are symptoms of genius. As Tár’s status falters, she doesn’t doubt her innate legitimacy, she is not social, and she perceives the world around her to be at fault. Her comeuppance is just bad luck, and she just moves on. Her attitude is wrapped up in the movie’s final lines, ‘Once you board this ship there is no turning back …and let no one judge you.’
Blanchett’s Tár truly lacks empathy for the uplifting synergies of music. She is calculating, a sociopath who snatches what she desires without reciprocity. She exemplifies what it means to let people down and to let yourself down. Field’s pseudo-documentary style, there was even a fake Lydia Tár Wikipedia page created for prepublicity, a fake website and Twitter person still exist, indicating the movie’s deepest intention for history to be reauthored, for the historical erasure of women in such roles to become questionable, for the achievements of women, such as Alsop, to be dimed. And worse, to pathologize future women when they know they have been denied equality. Alsop says — ‘all feminists should be bothered by that kind of depiction… It’s about women as leaders in our society.’
The movie opens with Tár at her zenith, appearing totally in control. She can command who will rise and fall in her compass, although she would argue that things happen purely through merit, nothing stops you but your faltering will. The apartment she occupies with her long-suffering wife and trophy daughter, adopted, is like a Zelensky bunker, macho styled in brutalist metal and concrete. There are heartwarming glimpses of domestic interaction between the two women, rare in cinema, that conventionally privileges only burgeoning passion and discovery. But usually, Tár roams this space and a similar studio where she composes isolated and aloof— her sleepless nights and personal training as indulgent and self-serving as her work days. Given Tár’s aberrations, what could have been a positive representation of a lesbian couple becomes a critique. Tár’s sexual orientation is a perversion, a dubious repudiation of the authority of men. In a heteronormal relationship, the man would keep such an errant woman (a fucking bitch) in order. Tár has no such checks on her behaviour.
With one thing and another, the veneer of perfected self-mastery doesn’t last. A self, even one on a podium, is surrounded and is interactive. Despite the apparent luxury of an expansive rehearsal schedule, Tár can’t help but be a bully, berating the orchestral players. Her dogmatism, a caricature of power, would never command the respect of professional musicians. When a former prodigy takes her own life, Tár trots out the type of glib suggestion of mental illness used by men to account for women who question their actions, ‘she had issues.’
Mainly, neither women nor men seek status to smother others’ aspirations, but the dais is tiny for women. To have a chance to breathe, she must go to a limit and be held to standards beyond men. As Alsop says, ‘You don’t just have to be good; you also have to look a certain way.’ And this is where Tár’s anti-feminism kicks in. It’s in the unravelling where the movie’s microcosm impinges on and most works to efface the true situation of Alsop’s life’s work. In a comment on BBC radio, Blanchett claimed that “power is genderless.” She ignores that women have historically been disempowered in a patriarchy that controls and defines the larger social, economic, and political systems that grant opportunity.
Despite Alsop standing as Tár’s paradigm, the makers of Tár did not solicit her input. And it doesn’t appear they bothered to watch ‘Conductor’ Bernadette Wegenstein’s sensitive 2021 documentary about Alsop. From the start of this film, Alsop refers to herself as part of a ‘we’, an alliance of conductor and ensemble players. She says conducting is connecting to touch the audience.
All art’s forms, its filmmaking, its representation of music, music, or its maestros are not mirrors held up to reflect the glory of geniuses. Field has remarked that Blancett is ‘An honest-to-God genius. So, who better to play a genius?’. If art is a tool that can reform and transform society, it is not on these terms. In Tár, music does not signify consensus but a singular mental state, where virtuosity is cruelty, not refinement. Unusually for a movie about music, the snatches heard are not pleasing but clumsy and unsubtle. Classical music journalist Norman Lebrecht speaking on BBC’s Front Row, describes the performance of Maler, allegedly conducted by Blanchett herself, as ‘all over the place.’
Tár, in common with the scattering of other movies featuring women in classical music, signals a decent, such as that of Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker 1998), obsession, as in The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke 2001), or neglect as reflected in Charlotte, the mother, in Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman 1978). In all cases, female subjects are pathologized. Tár gobbles down Metoprolol. In this way, she is just one more woman being medicated to stave off hysteria. The message is that a woman can be exceptional if she's not a ‘fucking bitch,’ because she is fucked-up.
The last word goes to Alsop, “To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser? For me, that was heartbreaking. I think all feminists should be bothered by that kind of depiction.’ Or should she mean deception?