This piece contains spoilers for Tar. Mentions of suicide, sexual harassment and professional misconduct.
I really wanted to love Tár.
The movie launches us into the middle of the world of classical music and offers no explanations. It’s overwhelming, at first, to be thrown back into the whirlwind of obscure references and posturing, the “remember whens” of a former conductor or an inside joke about “wide vibrato.” The lack of explanation, the density, the way in which the film completely immerses us in that world and does not care if the audience felt alienated delighted me. Finally, here was a movie about classical music for us.
The elitism and alienation is the point. I won’t go into the intricacies of how difficult it is to navigate and succeed as a symphony musician, but the important things are that it’s very competitive, very white, very cis, very straight, very male, very affluent.
This is the world that Lydia Tár inhabits, the institution where she wants to be seen as a notable and important person. The way that she gets to the top is in the way that the institution has demanded: through assimilation. When The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik lists her achievements during the introduction to her interview, it reads as classic overachieving, the kind you’d undertake to quell Imposter Syndrome. Everything about Lydia is curated, from her tailored suit and open collar, to her obviously rehearsed lesson on the power of the conductor and the nature of time, to the casual way she dismisses any notion that she had to overcome misogyny and homophobia. I thought, “She knows how to play the game.”
Cate Blanchett, who has never looked dykier than in this film, is mesmerizing as a character playing a character, a persona created in the image of the institution. In an early scene, Lydia tosses records onto the floor, looking for cover art inspiration, and settles on Leonard Bernstein (in a black turtleneck and blazer) and Claudio Abbado (in a light blue button-down with a concert score) — both prestigious Deutsche Grammophon yellow labels. My friend and bandmate, Emily — who has been going to the New York Philharmonic since childhood — told me how closely Lydia’s conducting emulates Bernstein’s, down to his super animated arm gestures and mouth sounds. Later, we see her photographed, a near-identical shot of Abbado’s Mahler 5 cover.
To Lydia Tár, what makes something great is its conversation with the canon, exemplified in her takedown of a literal 20-year-old, who said that they couldn’t get behind Bach because of his misogyny. (Full disclosure: I too would say that I did not get what the big deal was with Bach in my youth, but it was mostly because everyone said he was great and could not tell me why.) What ensues could have been a nuanced conversation about separating the art from the artist, but what occurs is a defensive and smug lecture about Ana Thorvaldsdottir and John Cage’s “shortcomings” as composers and how social media makes one a “robot.” I thought the choices of Thorvaldsdottir and Cage (who is not named, but his controversial piece 4’33 is mentioned disparagingly) were interesting, as both composers utilize graphic notation to a degree. Graphic notation – compared to Western notation, or staff – is a form of documenting musical ideas that is based on visual symbols, illustrations and words, the effect being that individual players have more agency in their interpretation of the score. Thorvaldsdottir’s and much of Cage’s work are also in conversation with nature and, for Cage, happy accidents, in sharp contrast to Lydia’s reverence for the structure of the institution.
In my opinion, if she wanted to go down this route, a more sobering yet effective tactic would have been to remind the class of the type of music rich white donors will expect to be programmed if they want to keep their jobs, or telling them that they can expect to be contending with a board of directors that’s about 90% white, who see themselves as stewards of (white, male, European) tradition.
Power subtly fills every frame of the film. One does not need to know the workings of a symphony orchestra to sense the power-play behind the scenes. You can note it when Lydia shares the screen with her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant) and her partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss. Both women give understated and complex performances, a counterpoint to Lydia’s flamboyance. Francesca fulfills the thankless job of catering to Lydia’s whims and responding to Krista Taylor’s desperate emails, no doubt, because Lydia has been dangling an assistant conductor position in front of her.
Krista Taylor, a member of Lydia’s mentorship program, we learn in the briefest of email subject headings, possibly had some sort of affair with Lydia. I feel like Krista, a much younger woman, developed feelings for Lydia, who treated her the way she treats Francesca, dangling promises of career advancement and never delivering, always reverting to holding up her own power. We learn this via brief glances at the emails that Lydia ultimately sank Krista’s career. This is a pattern for Lydia, played out with Francesca, with Krista, and even in the schoolyard with the girl who’s bullying her own daughter. Lydia counts on being the “adult,” who can threaten a child and know that the younger and less statused person won’t be believed.
I waited for the moment when Francesca would blackmail her with Krista’s emails, but was pleasantly surprised by the swerve of the plot arc when it never happened. It would have been the conventional route for the plot to take. Even if successful, she’d still have to work with Lydia. Francesca quitting without warning and giving Krista’s emails to her parents is not just a fuck you to Lydia, but also a way for her to save her own ass. She could see the writing on the wall.
Any hope I had about seeing a somewhat healthy relationship between middle-aged lesbians at the top of their professional games was dashed against the brutalist architecture before we even see Sharon. Before we meet Sharon, we see Lydia hoard Sharon’s medication and use it to self-medicate. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sharon is the concertmistress, one of the most powerful player positions in the orchestra. Undoubtedly they sought and consolidated power together and enabled each other. When Sharon admits to Lydia that she knows that their relationship is transactional, my heart doesn’t completely break for her, because I think to a significant degree, it was transactional for her, too.
This is a cynical take, I know! But I can’t help but think of the scene where Sharon reminisces about how, when Lydia first came to the Philharmonic, she asked Sharon to tell her the intricacies of navigating the system. And while I’m more or less fine with the choice to closely follow Lydia in the present, a flashback of post-coital scheming would have been hot! Sharon leaves Lydia in the end, not for the sexual misconduct or affairs, but because Lydia left her in the dark about the investigation into Krista’s death by suicide. To me, this reads that Sharon was more or less okay with the transactional nature of their relationship, as long as she could benefit and as long as she didn’t know the details of Lydia’s trysts – perhaps a willful ignorance. Sharon needed to cut ties with Lydia before she too became a persona non grata in the institution. I absolutely believe that Sharon removed the Mahler 5 concert score from their flat and handed it over to the Philharmonic as a show of fealty.
One thing that’s tricky about this film is that it’s allegedly about cancel culture, but if you blink or don’t know a couple of specific things about how symphony hierarchies function, then it reads that Lydia is fired only because of the pending lawsuit against her or the doctored TikTok video, a kind of supercut of her diatribe against the Juilliard student in the beginning of the film. Certainly these would have a significant impact on whether or not she retains her position, but she also flagrantly disrespects the governing system of the symphony — she goes against the structures she’s spent a lifetime reinforcing.
Formed in 1882, the Berlin Philharmonic is self-governing. The orchestra members vote on chief conductors, echoed in Gopnik’s introduction of Lydia at the beginning. When Lydia tells one of the principals that she wants to let the assistant conductor, Sebastian, go, he offers to get a quorum together to vote on it. She overrules him, leaving him speechless. Later, she tosses out the idea of performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, again to the surprise of the orchestra. (It’s an odd choice. Concert programming is curation, and the Elgar and Mahler 5 don’t really speak to each other.) Lydia then suggests that they hold open auditions for the cello solo, knowing that Olga (Sophie Kauer), the new cellist who has caught Lydia’s eye, plays the piece well. She also gives the section very little time to practice for the audition, all but guaranteeing Olga will win the audition.
This would never happen within the workings of an actual orchestra. The entire ensemble is visibly shocked. Unless there is a guest soloist, solos traditionally go to the principal (first chair of the section). To have a new player who is on trial given a solo is so wild, so unorthodox, and so sloppy. It’s embarrassing to Sharon for her colleagues to be so openly disrespected. My hottest of takes is that as much as Lydia’s downfall is caused by sexual misconduct, it is also because she is a disruptive force to the order within the institution, as well as its reputation. She uses her status to acquire additional privilege, and hers is an abuse of power rather than of a subversion and critique of it.
So many facets of Lydia’s sexual relationships are left ambiguous, to the strength of the film. In the beginning, Lydia compliments an admirer’s bag, and when she returns home and her partner, Sharon, notices it, says that it was a gift. Again, Sharon does not want to know. Sebastian predicts that Lydia will give the assistant conductor position to Francesca because of a sexual relationship, which the film neither confirms nor denies. We never even see the reality of what happened between Krista and Lydia, we are only given email subject headings, a first edition of Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge, and Lydia’s unreliable takes.
We are given both subtle and unsubtle clues to Lydia’s masc-ness: her tailored suits and baseball cap, introducing herself as Petra’s “father,” the way in which she doesn’t see herself as subservient to men. The body language she assumes when proclaiming to be a U-Haul lesbian is such LHB energy, it is truly [chef’s kiss]. What’s left unambiguous is her pursuit of Olga, and the second part of the film basically devolves into a portrait of a predatory lesbian. Beyond Lydia changing her score of Olga’s blind audition when she recognizes her shoes from underneath the panels, beyond her practically leering at Olga as she eats her lunch, we are given a scene where a middle-aged lesbian literally chases after someone half her age, and I could not have been more bored. It’s almost as if director/writer Todd Fields didn’t know how to resolve the complexities laid out in the first part of the film and relied on tired stereotypes to displace the tension and conflict. The result is that we can’t help but project what’s happening on screen onto what’s happened off it. I wish we had been given something else to help fill in the blanks or to maintain the mystery in a more compelling way, but also this is what happens when artists make decisions in a vacuum, without thinking about their impact on the identities they depict but don’t share.
It seems that the thesis of Tár is that in order to succeed in an institution, one must take on the traits of that institution, hoping that it would shield her from accountability for her worst impulses. But how do we know that a queer woman chief conductor would act so egregiously? There haven’t really been any. To date, only one queer woman has led a top tier orchestra in Europe and the US: Marin Alsop. (She and Nathalie Stutzmann are the only women to have led top tier orchestras in Europe and the US.) Like Lydia, she conducted an orchestra where her wife was a musician, they have a kid together, she runs a mentorship program for aspiring women conductors. She also retired from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last year with zero accusations of sexual misconduct.
For Lydia to be an out lesbian and start a mentorship program for aspiring women conductors, there would have been talk about how she was using it to find hook ups and as a way to groom women. For her to somehow not know this, or to act on her impulses despite the rampant sexism and homophobia, or for her to not care and somehow keep getting opportunities is just so weird to me. In my experience, there is a wide spectrum in terms of how much women will acknowledge that sexism or homophobia impacted their careers, but they will never say it had zero impact. Women in musical spaces have worked to build community and to hold doors open for others. They’re so often generous mentors. I’m not going to say that women don’t abuse power in musical spaces, but to have a character who is so flagrantly arrogant and self-serving and abusive, so lacking in self-awareness, does a disservice to the work that other women in classical music have done and are doing. To have the narrative follow Lydia so closely paints her as The Portrait rather than A Portrait.
Having lost her position and her family in Berlin, Lydia returns to her childhood home, where we are met with a twist: she hails from the working class, and this is where I was Officially Done. For a while now, Hollywood has had difficulty portraying the working class with dignity, and a main character returning to their “humble roots” so often reads as shorthand for failure. In Tár, her wood-paneled origins are a sort of “gotcha,” where it’s revealed that Lydia Tár is a character, that the answer to the question “Who is Lydia Tár?’ is “your guess is as good as mine.”
What is the point of this? Just 18.2% of musicians and visual artists in the UK come from the working class, just as an example. I imagined a younger Lydia, juggling hours of individual daily practice with ensemble rehearsals and a full course load, trying to get scholarships and working jobs, dealing with sexual harassment from old-school music professors with regressive approaches to pedagogy, whilst hearing a chorus of “you’re wasting your time” and “we can’t afford to pay your bills when you can’t get a job” back home. I’ve been there, too, shaving the edges off my accent and observing how I’m “supposed” to act around people born into a higher class, filling my free time in college with editing the school paper and lit mag and serving on committees, joining honor societies, being generally “clever” and “precocious,” all while working nights as dorm security, in the hope that one day I could have the “correct” CV so that I might transcend gender, sexual identity, class, tokenism — hoping that a hand might deign to offer me an opportunity so freely given to white men with ⅔ my qualifications, and it would be undeniable that I had earned it.
There are so few accurate portrayals of classical musicians, let alone ones that center on women and other people of marginalized identities, and what we’ve gotten here in one shot is an unsettling portrait of toxic hustling and bootstrapping, as if Lydia’s behavior is somehow an inevitability.
That she felt the need to, in her words, “obliterate” and remake herself in the image of the institution in order to succeed is an understandable conflict, but it’s also cynical and profoundly sad. I don’t think that the film gets this nuance or is able to handle a topic as complicated as class shame. It’s more interested in showing us power as a downward force and the severe upward angle of the camera on Lydia’s downbeat at the podium, seemingly cinematography depicting Lydia at the podium a reference to the Man Ray photograph — Lee Miller (The Necklace) — she’s literally a phallic symbol. What are they trying to say? That in order to get to her position, one must practically become the living embodiment of toxic masculinity? This is reductive and presumptuous at face value, but to project this onto a masc-ish lesbian is so gross.
Speaking of gross, the ending is such a problem! We think Lydia hits rock bottom when she returns home, but then she moves to an unidentified country in Asia, which reads as poor and “uncultured” in the context of the film, and I’m flummoxed as to why this decision was made. In one scene, a concierge sends Lydia to a questionable massage parlor with sex workers (because of course), illustrating that she has moved to a place that condones her predatory behavior. She becomes physically ill, and it could be read that she is repulsed by that idea.
However, the “fish bowl,” where she can select her masseuse, is arranged like an orchestra, the woman who makes eye contact with her sits in Olga’s position and her robe has an embroidered 5, as if Olga and Mahler 5 are mocking her. I don’t know what the point of this is, other than to be completely on the nose about her downfall. On the whole, the last 20 minutes or so tried my patience. I really wish more responsibility and sensitivity were present, and that we weren’t supposed to see a person losing institutional privilege and her “punishment” being to work in a non-Western orchestra and playing music seen by the institution as inferior as some sort of justice. Literally nothing about the institution that enabled her has changed.
To say that the second half of the film has some serious issues and majorly bummed me out is an understatement. I had such high hopes for the film, which disappointed in theme, but what I hold onto is the quality of the performances, which never wavered. With Blanchett, especially, there were so many wonderful bits where she responds to the sound in her environment, aided by the fantastic sound design. In one scene, Lydia hears a noise outside her flat, and she picks the notes out on the piano and riffs on it for a second. This is very musician-y. In another scene, Sebastian clicks a pen, and when he stops, places it on the desk, and walks away, she places the pen into her pocket. Lydia’s relationship with sound heightens the natural horror elements and is reminiscent of another movie about an arts institution, Suspiria.
I can’t help but come back to the moment when, during the interview at the beginning, Lydia announced that she planned to perform the “Adagietto” at around seven minutes. I audibly gasped in the theater. That’s so fast! (Ideal length is about 10 minutes, IMO.) She said that she wanted to play it fast to capture the energy of the new marriage between Gustav and Alma Mahler. “I choose love,” she said.
Musicians often point to The Piece, that moment in their journey when something clicks for the first time, when a connection and a sacrifice and a transcendence occurs, beyond logic, beyond words, a synthesis of emotion and physicality but somehow existing beyond it. For me, it’s the “Adagietto.” When I performed it 20 years ago, it took a patience and presence, so much control and restraint and softness and movement that I had not known I had the capability to communicate through sound. It took everything I had from me, and afterward I leaned against my bass and cried. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for Blanchett to conduct it, to have the camera fixed upon Lydia as she stood in stillness as the air still buzzed. I was emotionally moved to hear the end of the “Adagietto”in the film, to melt into the double basses surrendering from the G to the F and the slow decrescendo into silence. And I thought, “Who would want to rush through love?”