‘Tár’ Is a Deliriously Fascinating Take on ‘Cancel Culture’
The first few minutes of Tár are droning and monotonous. It’s easy to tune them out, as we watch this woman we have no attachment to being interviewed by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. Lydia Tár is clearly a woman in her prime, at the top of her career as a conductor and a brilliant mind, yet there’s something unnerving beneath the surface. We’re not quite sure what yet, and contrasted with the bleak perfection of our view of Berlin, we’re led to believe that this is just going to be the tone of the movie—slow, low, and enigmatic.
But the brilliance of Tár is in its subversion of our expectations and the nosedive through which we follow Lydia’s increasingly damaged career.
Mild spoilers for the film Tár.
Trigger Warnings: sexual abuse, grooming, suicide.
At the start, we’re shown that there are only open doors in Tár’s life, and we want to root for her because the orchestral/classical-music circuit is notoriously difficult to find success within, and Tár is a lesbian woman approaching middle age. The fact that she is so powerful is something we want to celebrate. Yet there’s still that something—that cold absence in her gaze, her self-satisfied tone—that makes you wonder.
Things are brought to the test when she guest-teaches a course at Juilliard and consistently picks on the student conductor, a student named Max, who is so nervous around her that their legs cannot stop bouncing, their eyes cannot leave the floor, and their arms remain either crossed or gripping their knees. This is not the nervous excitement of a student reveling in the presence of someone they admire—this is the anxiety of someone who knows they cannot win. Initially, Tár’s lecture is inquisitive, fun, and comes from the heart; what’s clear is that she’s given her entire life to something she is endlessly passionate about. You find yourself torn between her love for her craft, her brilliance within it, and her mastery of musical history … and the way that she’s making Max feel, with what seems to be amused intention.
But then, she begins to ask Max what they think of the greats, and Max—at the age in their education where they wants to make their point known, even if it terrifies them—tells her that they think Bach was a misogynist whom they detract because of it. And Tár finds this endlessly amusing, and won’t let up as a result. The scene is uncomfortable, especially when watching with relatives who enjoy the likes of Bill Maher. You don’t know what direction it’s taking you in and may start to worry, as I did, that this is going to be yet another movie about an older creative who, oh woe, is “persecuted” by the ignorant, inarticulate younger generation. That Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle-type beat.
But the scene takes fascinating swivels and swerves, ones that leave you wondering what on Earth is going on, because Tár is relentless and cruel in her manner. And Max reminds me acutely of being that age and not knowing how to make your case to those more powerful than you. They know their answer—something they are entitled to—yet they don’t know how to be clever and confident enough to match wits with someone like Tár. And it’s so obvious that she knows this, yet she circles them anyways, like a wolf staring down its lesser, until finally, Max has enough, and they get up and leave, calling her a bitch on their way out.
We’re not sure who won there. But what we do know is that Tár, whether she’s aware of it or not, has an element to her nature that is predatory.
The film then ebbs and flows between these two motifs: Tár as a master, and Tár as a predator. One moment, you’re following her through her orchestra, watching her work with complete control and ease. The next, she’s threatening her daughter’s bully with violence, and telling her that no one will believe her if she speaks out. Sometimes the two blend together, like when Tár arrives at her second home (the one owned by her partner), and discovers that her partner is having a panic attack. The partner is panicking even more because she can’t find her meds—the very same meds Tár was chugging in a bathroom on-tour, which she then pretends to find in their medicine cabinet. Dependence reinforced, hook, line, and sinker.
The movie moves on, in a pace that is still sluggish, yet increasingly more fascinating, more intense, darker. It ambles with a sense of urgency, and over time, the viewer becomes aware of two subtler plots that are so hard to catch that you’ll miss them if you blink.
The first is her attempt to distance herself from Krista, her former protegée who’s torn up about their dynamic, because it’s all but directly said that Tár selected her with the intention of grooming her into a sexual relationship. The second is her increasing fascination with Olga, an aspiring cellist newly arrived from Russia, who’s auditioning for a spot in Tár’s orchestra. In the middle of both roles is Francesca, Tár’s assistant, who we see more often because she’s the immediately real presence in Tár’s life. She fields these correspondences from Krista while hoping that she might succeed Tár’s previous assistant conductor after all her hard work.
We are so sympathetic to Francesca, because she is a genuine good in all this bleakness. Yet she, being the only genuine good, is the one who points us to the things we must be aware of. She is the one who tells Tár that Krista committed suicide, after a brief insinuation that there was something sexual between her and Tár. She weeps through this whole ordeal, while Tár remains eerily calm. Then, we see her eyes follow Tár’s as Tár follows Olga’s unmistakable heels, the only visible marker denoting individuality behind the cello audition screen.
And as Tár begins to favor Olga, bringing her places she shouldn’t and following her home, so too do the consequences of Krista’s death attempt to follow her. Protestors dog her book-reading, uploading Twitter videos of her and Olga with the caption “fresh meat.” Yet these attempts lead nowhere. Tár’s lawyer is so talented that we never even see them, and we only continue to hear of Krista because Tár, in her darkest moments, will go back and read her emails: heartbreaking attempts to ask for resolution, from a person who had been so deeply abused by someone more powerful than her that she can’t make sense of the world anymore.
I won’t spoil more within the movie, because it’s a movie worth watching with open eyes, but these are the most important factors to understanding this movie’s underlying message, which is that “cancel culture” simply does not exist for people with power. We live in an age where abusers and predators are easier to call out, but that’s often the extent of justice: a call-out. They claim that their careers are ruined, but the fact that they even still have careers is proof that they haven’t been dragged through hellfire quite enough, if at all.
And Tár does the most fascinating thing with this, in that we continue to solely focus on Tár’s daily life. When we do see the consequences of her actions (which is infrequently), they’re from her perspective, and they’re a mere blip on the radar while other things continue on. She continues to be in power … until she’s not.
Ultimately, she screws over someone who trusted her, and whose trust was violated. But this person had valuable information on her that eventually does find its way to Krista’s parents, and the trial is reignited. From here, Tár suddenly succumbs to her rage, and the movie falls from a droning monotony to a catastrophic nosedive due to her own self-imposed mistakes. And in the end, she loses everything that was important to her …
… Except for her fucking career, the thing that maintains her sense of power in the first place.
I can’t get over how smart this is. The movie knows how these things work. If Tár were somehow even more conniving and continued to placate those around her, nothing would have happened. No matter how vile a person she is, and no matter how obvious it is to those around her, she would still have her orchestra, her family, her connections. Yet even after losing all that, it’s not like she lost nearly as much as her predation merited. Without spoiling too much, even at the very end, Tár still has access to sexual gratification with a power imbalance, and regardless of whether or not she acts on it, she still has a job at the end of the day.
This is the “cancel culture” that all those sycophants decry. People with the power and cunning to ruin lives will continue to have power. They will continue to thrive in some capacity, while their victims are left to pick up the pieces themselves, if they’re lucky. And honestly, I think this point is only made stronger by making Tár a lesbian woman, because at least we see consequences here. If she didn’t occupy a marginalized identity, I’d imagine she’d still have a home, and some ties to her family.
And while the movie itself is dark, it’s also brilliant. Everything about it is intentional, from the gradual tonal buildup to the way important plot beats are essentially throwaway lines because of Tár’s narcissism. Movies like this give us an inner look at how these sorts of things actually transpire. We can scream and shout on social media all we want, but at the end of the day, these predators are protected by those in power. This is only further reinforced by the fact that the only people Tár speaks to as equals are the old, white men who occupy the top seats in the circuit. One of her peers even admits that he doesn’t think “those sorts of things” are crimes, so who knows what will continue to happen behind the scenes even without Tár?
I should end by saying this: I don’t think victims of predatory behavior should see this kind of movie and feel disheartened. Of course, it’s not my place to dictate how people absorb content, but as a survivor myself, I feel vindicated when these kinds of movies come out. They don’t give us a bullshit Hollywood takedown that reduces people’s expectations; they educate the audience on reality. And the more we’re exposed to reality, the likelier it is that one day, we might get some retribution.
Rest in piss, Lydia Tár. You deserved worse than conducting at a Monster Hunter concert con.
(featured image: Focus Features)
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