What are we to make of Tár? Some facts are all too familiar by now: before October 2022, the American director Todd Field held moderate renown as a fringe director with two niche movies on his CV. His debut, In the Bedroom (2001), and the later Little Children (2005) showed a quiet yet smart auteur taken to grand gestures with minimal risk. After 2005 he set his sights on “material that was probably very tough to get made,” as he described it, traipsing to the margins with pilots based off Joan Didion and Jonathan Franzen. A fifteen-year-long hiatus opened itself.
In late 2022, Tár assured Field’s notoriety for cultural critics over a mere two-month span. His account of a star classical music conductor felled by a #MeToo case invites commentary – or at least invites something. Some critics hailed Field’s film as the introspection on cancel culture Western society has craved for so long. At the New York Times, Ross Douthat claimed the film proved cinema’s recalcitrance to a woke ‘successor ideology’. The Spectator’s art editor exclaimed that the film did not deign its own genre designation – “an extended essay for the New Yorker rather than a film.” At the New Yorker itself, house critic Richard Brody witnessed an apology for “art monster” Lydia Tár. At Compact, Slavoj Žižek saw a meditation on art. Critics at France’s Cahiers du Cinéma proved even more prudent, declaring the film a treatise on the “obsessive grasp of acoustic signs that gradually lead the protagonist to suffer a loss of rhythm” – individual tragedy rather than sociological tract.
A flurry of online reactions came in more intemperate tenor. As a film, Tár supposedly offers a coded apologia for a perpetrator. Were viewers dealing with a movie hostile or sympathetic to cancel culture? Pro or anti ‘wokeness’? Field’s film seems to expose an Atlantic liberal culture increasingly helpless in the face of artistic ambiguity – the “intolerance of ambivalence,” which Freud once saw as the hallmark of the neurotic personality. In a piece for the Belgian daily De Standaard, for instance, the queer essayist Gaea Schoeters recused Field’s film of missing the mark in its choice for a lesbian offender. Why? A cursory look at the inventory of #MeToo cases, Schoeters claims, reveals that LQBTQI+ people make up a risible minority of perpetrators. “Truly”, another critic wondered, “do we need another lesbian predator in lesbian cinema at a time when “grooming” hysterias have reached a new fever pitch among Conservatives?” A peculiarly inflexible ideal of representation surfaces in these arguments: cinema and art are to offer a faithful reflection of reality, a statistically validated median. Only through this method can it secure its moral collateral; the artist as an agent of sensitization – or soft propaganda, to use more honest terminology.
Field’s realism obviously tends to invite this genre of readings. The film’s opening scene, a public conversation discussing Lydia Tár’s professional trajectory, features a real-life Adam Gopnik. The character of Lydia’s Berlin mentor seems to be inspired by Herbert von Karajan, himself once stationed at Berlin’s Philharmonic. In the header of a batch of emails Lydia is rushing to delete, we recognise addresses by numerous contemporary composers. A Deutsche Grammophon edition with Cate Blanchett composing on the cover is ready for orders online. Google searches by viewers included questions such as “Is Lydia Tár a real person?” and a batch of references to the cases of Adam Levine and Avital Ronell.
Tár’s hyper-reality prompts paranoid reflexes. From its opening minute, the world of the Bildungsbürgertum must be evoked in all its mundanity, with emphasis on the “mundane”: the snapback and winged fashion coat, the grand piano in the pied-à-terre in Friedenau, the concrete corridors of the metropolitan flat, the white walls of the private school the adoptive daughter attends, the chrome-black Porsche which shuttles her through Berlin. Lydia’s idiolect is erudite, manic, frontal, without the aggressive vulnerability her woke detractors have proven so proficient at. Any contemporary operagoer could run into her in a theatre lobby.
In its choice for a lesbian delinquent, Tár also argues along lines bound to pass by literalist readings. The impersonal power structure undergirding gendered oppression will always predominate over the person occupying it. Most #MeToo offenders might be men. Yet a noxious set of patriarchal preferences can only be acted upon in a position which allows one to indulge in those preferences. “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he has the power to lynch me, that’s my problem,” Stokely Carmichael once stated.
Field ably applies the same structuralist insight to Tár: hierarchies predate abuse, and gender roles will remain painfully interchangeable in the process. A more formalized labour market could perhaps hedge the arts sector against the risks of patronage. Yet it is Lydia Tár’s own addiction to the informal which subverts her professional standing – informality being the quality which lends her agility in the stratified spheres of classical music. When she heads out for a massage in an East-Asian megacity at the film’s close, the interchangeability of the servants proves nauseating. Any girl could do, but not quite: Lydia wants her girl and her girl only. As Žižek points out, the scene’s setting betrays clear parallels with the orchestral hierarchy visible throughout the film: Tár at the head of her band, the plenipotentiary who gets to pick between the subordinates. In East Asia, her response is one of disgust.
In examining these structural tensions, Tár also homes in on a string of eminently contemporary contradictions. The first one, as Zadie Smith pointed out in her New York Review of Books piece on the film, is a growing generational gap at the heart of Atlantic liberalism. Lydia is a Gen-X’er with boomer affects, while her critics are moralistic millennials or zoomers. In the wake of the 2008 crash and the populist convulsions of 2016, these cohorts have increasingly drifted to the edges of the professional culture. A second, related field of intervention is the commercial space in which classical music still inevitably operates. After Lydia’s misdeeds go public, for instance, the opera’s managers evince little interest in the respective truth value of her allegations. She may or may not be guilty. In predictably postmodern fashion, the question is one of public effects: if enough readers and listeners believe Lydia is guilty, then she – in strict accounting terms – is indeed guilty. Another pillar of Western high culture is eaten away: on intrinsic worth, classical music will not maintain itself; its marketability to the audience always takes precedence.
The third contradiction charts a geographical fault line. Years ago, Tár left her native New York to devote herself to the high arts in the Old World. There, the woke mob would not be banging on the gates. Tár instead registers a fatal cross-pollination: one with the Atlantic alignment prompted by Putin’s invasion, Berlin is now rapidly Americanizing, assailed by the same moralists roving on the home front. In the morning, women with protest signs waylay Lydia at her office; Twitter users post images purporting to show her entering a hotel with a young woman. Field’s theatre stewards talk like Anglo-Saxon marketeers.
A final contradiction covers a less visible décalage in twenty-first-century musical culture. Tár ends with a veiled homage to Leonard Bernstein, the composer who once inspired Tár to embark on a musical career which was to lift her out of working-class marginality. In her childhood home, Tár watches video recordings by the same Bernstein. The scene presents a homecoming, in every allusive sense. At the end of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), the syphilitic professor dumbly stumbles across the Italian beach to the tones of the Adagietto in Mahler’s Fifth – the object of Tár’s current cycle of rehearsals. The film tracked his stunted recovery from a failed premiere in imperial Germany. In the ephebe Tadzio, he thought he had found salvation; in the end, however, only the Fall beckons.
Like Mann’s novel, Tár embodies an ideal of high culture compromised by the invasion of the political into the private. Both have interfered with the corporeal and Dionysian – the Nietzschean motif which Mann was so fond of deploying. Bernstein here appears as a betrayed high priest of culture. His life represents an ultimate career arc, a trajectory which Tár’s narcissism can hardly remain insensitive to. After all, the marketing department needs its vedettes, and Lydia will perform the role with relish. Bernstein is the lost paragon of a fusion between high and low, precariously possible in the post-war period: in the 1950s, when mass culture truly did reign, the composer was writing musicals and introducing television viewers to Wagner, much like André Rieu is doing today. Harold Rosenberg once derided him as a representative of the kitsch implicit in all pop culture; in a typically modern rotation, the kitsch of 1958 has morphed into the haute culture of 2022.
With a face covered in tears, Tár looks up to her effigy. What are we looking at? A wistfulness about the fragmentation of mass culture, a muffled requiem for post-war social mobility? In Tár’s youth, working-class children could still look up to the most ennobling elements in Western culture. Today’s bourgeoisie, in turn, has not only shut its gates but simply dynamited the fortress. The students in her Julliard class are all too legible in class terms; a ruling caste taken to Marvel movies and Disney+ can no longer honour its ideals. Beethoven is a dead white man; Bach was a misogynist. The last representatives of high culture are escorted towards the exit. For Visconti, they could still renounce the pedestal; in our century, no voluntary abdication is possible.
After its premiere, Tár ends on its dazzling finale. Once again, Lydia oversees her orchestra. Now, her army is posted abroad, performing video-game soundtracks to Asian teenagers. Tár’s love for the trade finds an ugly but real outlet. In the beauty parlour, her disgust is anything but restorative – it merely reaffirms a necessary split between low and high. Here, the Nietzschean divide suddenly begins to shrink: unlike with Visconti and Mann, there can be no triumph for the irrational. Dionysus will not be crowned king, and Lydia will not collapse as Friedrich did before his horse. A provocative phantasmagoria, or an ode to an historically outdated idea of craftsmanship?
Once again, Field decides to suspend judgement: as viewers, we are left without deployable certainties. This refusal could certainly prove welcome in the insufferably moralistic debates which contemporary liberalism has proven so adept at. Lydia undergoes her abasement, but Field’s pointe will not be disclosed. As a director he is trying to reinstruct an audience in the virtues of ambivalence. Ultimately, however, Field’s ambiguity could also be said to serve a different purpose: the alibi for an evasion, an impotent postponement. What, after all, is Tár about? Power, generational struggle, hierarchies, gender, classes, culture, art? All the above? The overly eager projective exercises on behalf of the Western audiences ultimately owe their possibility to a film which so conveniently organizes its own indeterminacy and indecision – a conductor who clears their throat for a shocking pronouncement but never comes to make it. Reticence is hard to understand as an artistic sin. But promises do incur debts, just as they once did for Lydia Tár.
Images from Tár (Todd Field, 2022)