The Last Conductor
In Tár, multiculti affect is no defense against the rising tide
[Coming along with my annual review of Best Picture Oscar nominees! So far I’ve done Everything Everywhere All At Once, Avatar: The Way of Water, All Quiet on the Western Front, Women Talking, Elvis, The Banshees of Inisherin, and now this:]
In Todd Field’s Tár, a powerhouse composer and conductor, Lydia Tár, is brought down, indeed brought low, when accusations against her of improprieties (inappropriate and harmful relationships with students and subordinates, bigoted expressions) become impossible for her employers to countenance and easy for her rivals to exploit.
The worst of the accusations against her, the ones we might agree are firing offenses, are never dispositively proven — which one could easily imagine happening in the world of the arts, where prestige is based on intangibles as much as anything else. (One side effect of Tár’s many scenes of artistic excellence in performance is that they show even great talent alone is not enough to gain this status.) And we might feel that Tár has gotten a raw deal if we were reading the usual tabloid cancelculture account of it. But the film’s account is the opposite of that sort of hackwork.
Lydia Tár is 21st Century romantic artist-hero — not only talented and accomplished but also extraordinarily expansive and verbal in the manner of Leonard Bernstein, or “Lenny” as Tár calls him (she also calls him her “mentor” even though she is too young — and, as we come to learn, was never in a position — to have actually studied with him). The long takes of her near-monologues at the beginning are meant to give us some idea of how untrammeled she is — and a hint of how unmoored.
In a New Yorker talk (moderated by Adam Gopnick!), she recreates her relationship to the world of art and music in miniature — a stream of brilliant twaddle (“the only real discovery for me is in the rehearsal, never the performance”) in which the dazzled audience bathes. Some genuine insights float in that stream, but who knows whether the audience gets them? They’re mainly reacting to her status. She’s a celebrity, an EGOT, as credentialed a genius as one can be in our society.
Tár’s brilliance also extends to her working of art-world politics, as we see in her successful encounters with the many lesser beings in her orbit (like Sebastian, the kapellmeister whom she does dirty so skillfully that he ends up begging her pardon, which she declines to give). We may suspect that this is true as well of her modish and carefully curated multiculturalism, which includes refugee concerts and programming works by contemporary artists like Hildur Guðnadóttir (also an Academy Award winner!) in “conversation” with the dead white males of the canon “and,” she says, “[the conversation] may not always be polite,” zing!
At the same time, Tár gets on very well with the old guard — she is down with the donors and solicitous of her old teacher Andris, with whom she shares clubby chats about the old days and ways and Beethoven and ballbusters. Andris says of her noise sensitivity:
ANDRIS: Schopenhauer measured a person’s intelligence against their sensitivity to noise.
TÁR: Didn’t he also famously throw a woman down a flight of stairs who later sued him?
ANDRIS: Yes, though it’s unclear that this private and personal failing is at all relevant to his work.
Chuckles all around. As a self-described “U-Haul lesbian,” Tár is a relatively new thing in the establishment, but she is establishment all the way.
But if Tár’s brilliance flows freely, it also overruns boundaries. For one thing, she has a habit of bird-dogging young women who work under her. Her wife’s reminiscence of her coming-up is also a warning: She had to learn, and ought to remember, to “follow the rules” of her business. These rules are vague in the letter but clear in spirit. When Andris talks about his evasion of suspicion in the post-WWII de-Nazification days in Europe, he says, “I made sure all the hangers in my closet were facing the same direction.” That’s to be interpreted but the message is clear.
But when Tár gets salty with a self-identified “BIPOC pansexual” Julliard student who claims that, on that account, he can’t take Bach seriously enough to even play his music because of all the children he sired, we see that she hasn’t internalized the message. At several points, even before we’re clear that harassment is an issue with her, we notice she’s being not only harsh but at least a little abusive — even if we agree with her, and dismiss the snowflake’s identity dodge, his leg-shudders suggest he’s wrapped too tight for such a confrontation, particularly with a big swinging dick like Tár, and at several points I felt instinctively, no, that’s too much. (When, much later, a TikTok of the encounter is shown, we can see it has been suggestively and in places deceptively edited — but all those trigger points are there.)
We never really, really know the whole truth and many of us will leave unsure that Tár has done anything we would consider grounds for removal. In the end, we only have a little more information than most of the other characters would have. Tár’s dismissiveness and evasiveness on the subject looks increasingly fishy but it’s not enough to hang a case on.
What we do know is that Tár is part of the elite, and an asshole. Her behaviors correspond to what we know or imagine we know about people like that: High-handed with inferiors, pampered, remote, self-aggrandizing, glib to the point of cruelty. The standard line on this sort of thing is that genius must be indulged. That’s certainly the POV of Tár and her intimates, chortling over Schopenhauer.
But, you may have noticed, a lot of people today are less apt to accept that. (This is a good moment to mention that Field begins the film with the long credits of non-topline talents that are usually shown after a film is over, when they can be more easily ignored.) Tár has certainly noticed and, as we saw at Julliard, she rejects that POV and the “millennial robots” who share it. She shows no concern for who her behavior may hurt. We also notice that behavior becoming increasingly reckless, as if she’s been provoked into proving her primacy to herself.
As Tár descends we learn new things about her — first, how she reacts to the pressure of dethronement: Very badly at first, acting out spectacularly. Over time her resistance is quieter, and her acquiescence to her reduced state is slightly pitiful but not engineered to wrench us up into any more than simple sympathy with her. What she has lost, we can see, is not life’s big things, like her health or her mind or her capacity; like most prominent alleged victims of cancellation, she has simply lost status.
I’ve seen it suggested in some reviews that Tár learns or is learning something in defeat. I don’t see it. The point of the ending is not that she’s rehabilitating or reforming, or even that she’s being punished — it’s that she doesn’t matter. Field increasingly shoots Tár smaller and less the focus of even scenes that are clearly about her. Her score prep and her sharp intake of breath before coming onto that little stage at the end of the movie is reminiscent of her pre-show behavior back in the big time, though there is no one there to hand her a glass or take it away when she is done; she is still the same talent with the same techniques. But her world has changed unrecognizably. Having her conduct the sort of event she does at the end without explaining it to viewers who likely don’t know what it is (explanation here) is the last of a series of brilliant strokes by Field: the attentive audience of people in animal costumes seem like members of an alien race — as indeed they are, to Tár. And contra Amy Taubin, that’s not racist “othering” — because it is Tár, now, who is the other.
All the acting is on point, especially Mark Strong as a rival whose obsequiousness and duplicity are both so controlled that they sneak up on you like slow-acting poison, Julian Glover as old boy Andris, Sophie Kauer as the rising cellist who knows how to handle herself, and of course Cate Blanchett. Her Tár is a martinet, an intellectual, a sensualist and, under a thin, tight wrapping, a mess. Tár is outsized and in some sense a monster, but Blanchett never pushes it, so that deck is never stacked and her actions are always a potential surprise. When she weakens it’s not a great beast being brought down, but simple human pain and sorrow.
We came close to seeing this but... I dunno, I was bothered that Tár was a queer woman. I dunno, in reactionary times such as these, an artiste could have gotten more mileage and sent a better message with a straight male. Or, now that I think about, even a straight woman would have been better than a gay woman. Not saying a case can't be made that Tár is fine. Should add that I can't buy Blanchett being born in Staten Island in anything other than an SNL skit maybe.
Anyway: Explanations why I'm wrong welcome. (Note that I get the part about an exceptionally well done production but that's besides the point.)
But what do I know? I watched "In a Lonely Place" expecting a noir and it turned out to be a horror movie.
Thanks for another great review, I haven’t seen the film yet but it’s on my list. One interesting thing about the movie in terms of the “cancel culture” element is people’s responses don’t break as cleanly along the liberal/conservative divide as might be expected. Granted, some conservatives see Tar as a hero brought low by intersectional Gen-Z commissars, but frankly it’s normal for nuance to be invisible to conservatives, who don’t seem to be able to enjoy any art unless they can perceive The Message in big block letters. And if The Message isn’t clearly presented, they create one.
The mixed response of a lot of liberals, a “where is the line” confusion and discomfort, is what I find a lot more interesting. Status and prestige, how it’s gained and lost, and who we readily give it to as well as how we decide when it has to be taken away, is a fantastic subject to explore.