On the face of it, Tár vies for topicality without descending into simplistic and strident didacticism, even if its shoe-in status as a Best Picture Oscar nominee ought to tell us something about where its underlying allegiances lie. Nevertheless, writer-director Todd Field is evidently intent on suggesting texture and shading, steeping the proceedings in a less-than-straightforward veneer of subjectivity and ambiguity, to the extent that one might conclude he is homaging another ponderous and achingly meaningful film, one he worked on more than twenty years ago: Eyes Wide Shut.
Albeit, Kubrick’s earlier The Shining might be a more suitable point of comparison, if one is willing to subscribe to the theory presented by Slate’s Dan Kois. Tár ushers us into the arena of renowned conductor Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett), who finds her controlled, refined and poised world gradually disintegrating when her sexual indiscretions and career violations come back to haunt her. As these circumstances proceed to envelop her, incidents occur that are not obviously explicable; Lydia is hearing things (someone at the door), losing things (her score goes missing from the bookshelf) or happening upon oddness (a metronome is keeping time in the night, when no one switched on). Then there’s the screaming woman Lydia hears when she goes running in the park (whom she cannot find). And young cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) – a new member of the orchestra in a programme for aspiring female conductors Lydia teaches, whom Lydia has her sights on – apparently living in a derelict and foreboding apartment complex.
Kois has it that, from approximately the point Lydia enters the complex, she descends into a fantasy, or nightmare, and everything we see from then on is a hallucinatory state. He highlights appearances of Krista Taylor’s ghost in support of his case (Krista, a programme member selected for Lydia’s attentions, subsequently discarded and blocked by Lydia from getting work, committed suicide). I have to admit, I had to strain at the gifs of these and mutter “If you say so”. Notably, as soon as Lydia leaves the complex, she falls on her face; she proceeds to invent an explanation for this, claiming her bruising was the result of an attack (this, obviously, has precedent – Justin Smollett – but in terms of Tár, is it suggesting, yes, people lie about such things, but only if they’re bad seeds and abusers themselves?)
Subsequently, a viral video, evidently edited – which would mean a number of lecture attendees were filming the situation, where we didn’t see anyone doing so and no one was allowed to have a phone, and they presumably pooled evidence for result – presents Lydia’s already outspoken tirade during a Julliard lecture even less defensibly. She’s the subject of a New York Post piece suggesting she is perpetrator of multiple grooming incidents, and her new book’s reading is attended by protestors with “Krista We Love You” banners. She then, roused to the max, physically assaults Elliot (Mark Strong) for performing her piece, pummelling him in front of the audience.
The latter was the point at which I thought Field’s film turned from occasionally offbeat to very silly, Field almost wilfully breaking its carefully preserved sense of interiority and verisimilitude; I couldn’t see Lydia, even with the downshifts in her fortunes, suddenly going full-on berserk. Kois’ reading is that much, if not all, of this is invention, a nightmare envisioning of a fate that might befall Lydia if everything goes against her.
While there’s much to be said for the theory, I’d more likely plumb for a “yes and no”, rather like Jack’s experiences in The Shining, where he is interacting with those who are not there (even if there’s actual supernatural import in the mix in that case). I can see Lydia making her assault up. I can see Olga spurning her (because it’s entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen of her). I can see Lydia summarily dismissed without the benefit of the doubt (#MeToo 101). And I can definitely see her dealt the schematic justice of being forced to conduct a video game score in Southeast Asia (for Monster Hunter).
In terms of that foray, after all, there’s the scene in which she is told to pick a masseuse and responds by rushing off to vomit, in recognition of her prior behaviour towards students. In Kois’ interpretation, this would have to be an altered state within an altered state, which is possible but pushing it. Of course, then you find yourself parsing what is too outlandish. Why Monster Hunter but not beating up Elliot? I can only go by the limits of my suspension of disbelief; conducting the orchestra for a video game simply seemed like over-telegraphed irony. To be fair to Kois, he admits no certainty regarding the ins and outs of the “dream”, just that the picture invites such a reading.
Whether this layer is essential, or simply another means for Field to make Tár seem to be more than it is, is questionable. The very the act of switching the customary male role of serial predator (or, if you consider that too strong for Lydia, serial abuser of power, position and influence for sexual gain) seems like a slightly facile one. Like Demi Moore’s masculine posturing over frightened rabbit Michael Douglas in Disclosure. Is it blurring lines by making the culpable party female and a lesbian (so groups traditionally considered victimised, marginalised or likely to make protests against Tár’s very proclivities), or is it simply rather fatuous, a talking point that chases its tail? Field lends Tár the semblance of a different snapshot to that of straightforward Harvey Weinsteins, standard-issue abusive toxic males, but through that, it’s no less clear how we are supposed to see her. Because the narrative plays out in the same way, albeit more obliquely (because that indirectness too, in Field’s thinking, makes it more “artistically” interesting/rewarding).
We see enough to assume the facts, in traditional narrative terms, and also more than enough of the opinion of those who know her and her capacities; Field is careful to avoid outright, scene-of-the-crime illustration (presumably because the movement is in part characterised simply as rushing to judgement, for media pile-on and employers covering their arses, believing what alleged victims say as a matter of course). One might argue he should have been more oblique, though, if he genuinely wanted this side to carry any resonance; the viewer would need to have some degree of doubt about the charges made, and that isn’t the case here.
It’s more than evident that Tár uses her position inappropriately in terms of relationships, and from the glimpses we see, she certainly appears to have ensured Krista was backlisted. The specifics of what went on between them is left to the imagination, but her behaviour with assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who seems to have been part of Lydia’s slightly cult-leader-tinged liaison with Krista, is very telling (“She wasn’t one of us” soothes Lydia, inviting loyalty and dependency with language that ultimately wilts in the face of Francesca’s sense of guilt).
Field appears to be making a broader intimation when Lydia dines with Julian Glover’s Andris Davis, her retired predecessor. He bristles at the thought, a mistaken one, that a charge may be laid at his door, because he’s now out of the game: “Thank God I was never pulled from the podium like James Levine… or hunted like Charles Dutoit” It is implicit that inappropriate behaviour, abuse of power, goes hand in hand with positions of authority, and those of such exalted status habitually indulge it. So when Andris complains (and, per the preceding paragraph, it is a legitimate comment) “Nowadays, to be accused is the same as being guilty”, it is difficult to assume other than Field’s intended takeaway being “There’s no smoke without fire”. At very least in the conducting world. (Of Lydia’s response “You’re not equating sexual impropriety with being an accused Nazi?” I wondered what the point was supposed to be morally, in respect of either distinction. That Lydia considers such shenanigans a mere trifle, presumably).
Max: Honestly, as a BIPOC pangender person, Bach’s misogyny makes it kind of impossible for me to take his work seriously.
Likewise, Field is loading his dice via the early exchange with student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who is absurdly immersed in identity politics (I’d suggest to the point of caricature, but that would be rash; he is, however, written entirely to provide Tár with an extreme response). Max comes across as a brainwashed idiot, obviously (“You play really well, but nowadays, white male CIS composers – just not my thing”), and his composure evaporates in spectacularly unflattering fashion when she “triggers” him (“You’re a fucking bitch!”) But Tár, in turning her disapproval into a disinterment of Max’s position, loses the high ground, pegging herself as authoritative (a “u-haul lesbian”) and proceeding to iterate and reiterate the dangers of reducing “Bach’s talent to gender, religion, birth city, sexuality and so on”. Which are obvious, basic arguments, and one might suggest beneath her to indulge, were she actually living the rarefied life she appears to be (obviously, this is most explicitly undercut when we witness her humble origins; she’s a liar. Everything about her is a lie).
This is Field overegging his pudding, then. It might have been more effective, were Lydia completely pro-gender politics by day and guilty of workplace misconduct by night (for example, à la Whedon). Instead, we’re invited to a rather rote “Well, of course Lydia’s no good. Look at how dismissive she is of the woke parade”. Which yes, is a simplistic reading, but it’s one Tár’s arrangement of the furniture encourages.
Lydia: How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional.
Sharon: There’s only one relationship you’ve ever had that wasn’t, and she’s sleeping in the room next door.
It might be inaccurate to label Lydia an unvarnished sociopath, as Field suggest slivers of conscience trickling in at various points, and the debate about the reality of her experiences in the second half of the film appears rooted in this. But her behaviour, untouched by empathy, failing to show restraint after making a point, unblinkingly using deceit and manipulation to get results in career and personal-life, is undoubtedly sociopathic. Lydia’s wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) suggests she only has genuine feeing for her daughter (Mila Bogojevic), but she even expresses this most acutely through disdain for rules and social strictures (threatening the school bully). When the gloves are off, and she has nothing to lose, Lydia relishes the chance to say what she really thinks.
But as far as the picture’s scope is concerned, Field has rather anchored his ship to cultural touchstones of the moment. In spite of the room he makes for the interior or unreal, Tár starts out with a very literal take on the world, one that doesn’t question provable reality but merely interrogates the same socially. The film is thus a thoroughly Hegelian construct, in that it becomes exclusively about this current bubble of the debate, rather than gazing at it from above, with perspective, and the reasons and background to the creation of such conditions. By selecting the subject matter he does, the movie becomes about that, regardless of whether Tár could be argued as “less cultural critique than intricate character study…” Where you fall on its cultural critique is, essentially, the picture’s cachet, but it’s also its strict limitation.