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Tar (2022)

I just saw Tar, finally, and it was a very artful character piece. It certainly scratched my itch to see something a little artier than what’s been on offer at the multiplex of late. It’s an at times glacially placed but never uninvolving character piece about a formidable but problematic artistic personality, renowned conductor Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett). The film develops into a psychological ghost story of sorts, dealing with guilt, power, narcissism, and the question of how we deal with “difficult” artists.

The film is gorgeously shot and I’m really glad that I saw it on a big screen just for that aspect. The Blanchett performance deserved its Oscar nod and helps to give us one of the most fully realised fictional artists of recent years. The story is essentially a portrait of an elitist, a controlling and fundamentally selfish personality. One who’s clearly sacrificed a lot to arrive at where she is, but potentially at the cost of what makes a “good” or even just functional person.

The film has been somewhat controversial for its portrayal of an abusive and manipulative woman, perhaps especially among real-life female conductors. That’s understandable. Its exploration of post-Me Too themes and dynamics places it in a particularly controversial context, and it must be galling as a woman to see your profession represented by a fictional, female abuser.

None of that made the film itself particularly problematic for me, though, since in a sense the sex and gender angles felt beside the point. Plus, the storytelling is subtle enough that it avoids any crass implications about those subjects. An early scene wherein Tar takes to task a progressive student uncomfortable with the straight white men of music history has been lauded by the usual conservative voices, but both the scene itself and the film as a whole is a lot more complicated than that, and those lauding the scene should maybe consider what we come to learn about how Tar behaves.

A ghost from the past continues to haunt her. A female protege whom she may have sexually groomed continues to besiege Tar’s assistant with emails. There are deeply atmospheric shots and scenes that are more interpretative than literal, portraying Tar’s repressed emotions and possibly guilt as they bubble to the surface. Not all questions have answers in a film like this, and it would be unwise to expect the film to, for example, explain who defaced Tar’s metronome, sent her a book with a message inside, and so forth. Solutions aren’t the point.

In fact, one thing that I really liked about the film is that it never declares itself as to exactly how “guilty” Lydia is. In this way it reflects the problems that our culture has with accusations against famous figures and what we as regular schmoes are supposed to do about them. Not all cases are black-and-white and human personalities are made up of many parts, but at the same time, power imbalances are exploited by elites in all sorts of ways beyond the most obvious.

Tar’s behaviour is frequently questionable and she’s not a “good” person. While it’s easy to take her side in the scene where she dresses down the progressive student, her behaviour is actually quite repellent. It’s not enough for her to state why she disagrees with them about their association of art with artist, she has to call attention to their nervous tic and engineer a humiliation in front of their peers, before making sure that she has the last word. She is kind of, in the student’s words, a “f****** b****”.

The music in the film is great, though as much as I loved its ruminations on art and history and creativity, to a degree the story could be set in any world. Lydia Tar could be a scientist or even an elite sportsperson. What you’re left with is someone who has risen to the top of her profession, only to find an ugly and disposable person staring back at her.


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