The Reading Room

Conducting Oneself and Others in Tár

Todd Field’s Tár, nominated for six Oscars, is a beautiful but densely constructed film that expects much of its audience and explains little. The movie assumes a familiarity with the world of classical music, and viewers must exercise their own judgment regarding the underlying motivations and loyalties of characters in a conspiratorial world that is never fully explained. Beyond the scheming of its central character, Lydia Tár (brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett), the film’s opening scene of an illicit video chat makes clear that some sort of conspiracy against Tár is also afoot, the details of which are never fully confirmed.
Adding to the confusing mix is a line of interpretation, supported by screen shots revealing an unexplained figure hidden in the background of a key scene, that Tár should be understood as a ghost story, almost certainly in the tradition of Henry James’s A Turn of the Screw. As in James’s classic novella, it remains unclear whether this ghost should be understood as a “real” supernatural phenomenon or an expression of the psychological state of the central character, thus opening up rather than closing down interpretive possibilities.
In light of this confusing density, discussion has, perhaps understandably, focused on identifiable flashpoints: the film’s representation of cancel culture and the ethics of featuring an abusive female (and lesbian) conductor when documented cases of such behavior almost entirely involve male (though not always straight) conductors. In my view, these two lines of thought are interconnected. Given the fictional Tár’s strong advocacy of gender- and color-blind meritocracy within the film, at least one function of her identity is to give those arguments a hearing that would be less sympathetic—more easily cancelled (to the film’s predominantly liberal audience)—in the mouth of a male actor, even one as accomplished and charismatic as Blanchett.
I remain undecided on whether this is a brilliant reframing of those arguments to make them less easily dismissed in a world of identity politics or an evasion of the realities in an industry where positions of authority, and thus abuses of power, remain dominated by men (and where insufficient checks and balances have been established to protect against such abuses). For readers sympathetic to the former interpretation, I would simply note that Tár’s unambiguous abuses of her position make her at best a deeply compromised advocate for those views.
I wish to pursue another aspect of the movie, though, one that I confess did not strike me until the morning after my first viewing of the film. Having slept on it, I awoke with the notion that Tár’s abusive and controlling relationships in the real world might be in some way tied to her vision of conducting, particularly as elaborated in the film’s opening 10-minute interview of Tár, conducted by Adam Gopnik (playing himself).
That interview opens with Tár dismissing the notion of gender bias as a thing of the past in the orchestral world. Suggesting that herself and (real life conductor) Marin Alsop have nothing to complain about (Alsop has begged to differ), she does acknowledge the hard work of female pioneers like Antonia Brico. Interestingly, given the film’s ending, she describes Brico as ghettoized and treated like a dog act.
From there, Tár turns to her own views on conducting. She insists that time is “the essential piece of interpretation,” and that while her left hand shapes the music, the right moves time forward—or stops it. She continues, “the illusion is that, like you, I’m responding to the orchestra in real time . . . the reality is that right from the very beginning I know precisely what time it is and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together. No, the only real discovery for me is in rehearsal, it’s never, never in performance.”
These reflections on time and their relationship to interpretation are fascinating, and quite likely relevant to the film’s broader thematic interest in time and reinterpretation, such as Tár’s relationship to her first Berlin apartment and her active revisions of her own past. But I want to focus in on Tár’s contrasting the illusion of discovery with the reality of total control. This phrasing could just as easily characterize her own manipulative behavior, such as her arrangement of events to create the illusion that the orchestra has selected the young cellist on whom Tár has fixed her attentions for a featured solo in their upcoming performance.
This insistence on control is central to Tár’s interaction with the world as a whole. Everything must be planned, even when it is presented as a mutual response. In virtually every relationship presented in the movie, Tár fosters an illusion of mutuality while carefully orchestrating her own agenda behind the scenes. The possible exception is her foster daughter—though it may be Tár’s motives for manipulation here are simply more sympathetic than elsewhere in the film. While the scene with her daughter’s bully is satisfying, that does not necessarily make it less sociopathic.
The other portion of the interview that seems clearly relevant is the discussion of Gustav Mahler’s relationship with his wife, Alma, which Tár insists is central to the mystery of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, the forthcoming recording of which will be the culmination of her career. Tár seems to identify with Gustav and defends the conductor when her assistant (and an aspiring conductor whom Tár will ultimately pass over for a promotion), Francesca, blames Gustav for stifling Alma’s career as a composer. Though possibly a coincidence, the age difference between Cate Blanchett and Noémie Merlant, the actress playing Francesca, is the same 19 years that separated Gustav and Alma. 
While the movie has rightly been identified as a #MeToo movie, it is notable that all of the abuses that we see in the film involve inappropriate exercises of workplace authority rather than sexual misconduct per se. Of course, Tár’s motivations seem clearly guided by eros and the need to cover up previous entanglements; but the film is not interested in depicting her as—or even confirming that she is—a sexual predator.  Her abuses of power are independent of the nature of whatever sexual encounters may have accompanied them. It is her stifling of others’ creativity on which the film centers.
If nothing else, Tár offers a bracing reflection on a certain kind of desire for control. I have no idea whether the conception of conducting presented by Tár in this film is widely shared within the actual world of classical music, but her story certainly speaks to a recognizable and deeply problematic personality type. Given that topic, perhaps the film’s dense complexity and resistance to straightforward narrative transparency is meant as a kind of antidote—or is it rather a trigger?—to the mindset of its central protagonist.