Cate Blanchett Is Bewitching But Her Lesbian Symphony Movie Is Tár-ible

Before Ellen Degeneres’ spectacular fall from grace, she released a much-hyped Netflix comedy special in which she wondered, for an entire hour: Can I be your relatable daytime dancing buddy, even though I’m now richer than the devil? The answer, though she didn’t realize it at the time, was a resounding no. No, you can’t foster a culture of racism and harassment. No, you can’t bully and mock your employees and guests on live TV. No, you can’t send a solid gold baby carriage to Donald Trump. No, you can’t pal around with homophobic war criminal George W. Bush. No, you can’t do any of those rich people things and expect to still be held high in our esteem. No one was more shocked by that answer than Ellen herself, who never managed to release anything resembling a heartfelt apology.

In her new Oscar-buzzy film, Tár, Cate Blanchett plays fictional lesbian conductor and composer Lydia Tár — but she may as well be playing a cringing and canceled Ellen, or a hateful and canceled J.K. Rowling, or any number of baffled rich cis white women who are staring down accountability with a scowl and a: “But… but… but… I, too, have been a victim! And I have made a lot of art you love!”

Tár introduces us to its protagonist with a Wikiepdia entry and then an interview with real life New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, in which he lists her accomplishments with an almost comical flourish. What you need to know is that in the world of the ultra-wealthy — the people who attend the opera and the symphony on the regular, fly around in private jets, and pronounce “croissant” like “kruh-swaaan” — Lydia Tár is a legend. A maestro. She’s an EGOT! Every coat and suit and shirt she wears looks like it was tailored at god’s own personal atelier! When she speaks, or walks on stage, or even just flicks her conductor’s baton, everyone shuts up and listens! And when we meet Lydia, her star is still on the rise — until she receives an anonymous copy of a Vita Sackville-West book, which she rips to shreds, a metaphor for the unraveling that’s about to take place in her own life.

Cate Blanchett waving her conductor's baton in Tar

Because esteemed married lesbian Lydia Tár is also a hush-hush lesbian predator who has been seducing young women who’ve wanted a place in her orchestras for years and years. She uses her power and influence and position to get them into bed, and if anyone questions her tactics, she scoffs and points out that she looks like Cate Blanchett; what lesbian wouldn’t willingly hop right into her sheets? And anyway, she’s a woman. A lesbian woman. She has faced endless sexism and homophobia in her life and career. How can she be a predator? Todd Field, who came out of a near 20-year directorial silence to make this movie for some reason, seems to agree with Lydia’s argument. Over the course of the film, other momentos from Lydia’s past keep popping up, and she begins hearing things, bolting awake from terrible nightmares, hallucinating, paranoia upon paranoia. Is that tick-tick-tick a metronome? A clock? A bomb? All three?

The main problem with Tár isn’t that it’s messy-weird in some places and stock footage pedestrian in others, or that it paints us peasants as hopeless cretins, or even that it wants to splash around in the #MeToo conversation without committing to getting wet; it’s that Field views identity politics as a zero-sum game that seeks to destroy true art. He seems to think he’s asking big questions about who is really a victim, and who is really a bad guy, and whether or not auteur theory holds here in this brave new world — but it’s way too reductive for all that. The same conducting student who says they can’t take Bach seriously because he was a misogynist also identifies, out loud, as “a BIPOC pangender person.” Fields is intent on mocking any real critics of his or Lydia’s opinion on artistic geniuses. He even refuses to bring them into focus, literally. Their faces are blurred; we can’t tell if Lydia is remembering misdeeds or tripping over her own fears; and we never see the perspective of the women Lydia has seduced and discarded. Tár is rooted firmly in Lydia’s perspective, intent on preserving her legacy above all else.

Look, if you want Cate Blanchett to punch you in the face and run over you with her bicycle, that’s absolutely fine — but revisiting Carol or even Ocean’s 8 is a better way to live out that fantasy.


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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1484 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thank you for this review! I have such mixed feelings after seeing this movie last night. I really enjoyed the cinematography and found the colors and atmosphere really beautiful. I found Cate compelling as always. I found the classroom scene where she basically spews ~ separate the artist from the art ~ BS to be super cringy and too on the nose. It felt like lazy development imo. I enjoyed other things, though; the young cellist, the assistant’s revenge, the attack on the other conductor at the end. I found the relationship with her daughter surprisingly touching, especially when she threatens the other student. I thought the wife’s role was quite well done, especially when we could see her seeing the way Cate was flirting with the cellist, etc.

    The last 20 or so minutes sort of blew my mind and I can’t tell if I enjoyed it or not. I’m torn between reading the ending (where she’s conducting for a fandom basically) as the result of her fall from grace, implying that everything caught up with her and that’s the only sort of work she can get, or if that’s the sort of work she always did and would do, because outside of the Elites, a fandom movie special is precisely the way most of us actually interact with this sort of music. I also chewed on whether her fall from grace is meant to be tied to her attacking that guy at the podium or the fallout from her grooming etc that we don’t see handled on the screen.

    TLDR thank you for this review! so much to chew on with this movie.

    • I’ve been describing this movie as something that crescendos into a comedy. On rewatch it’s so pretentious you wonder why you took it so seriously in the first place.

      ***Spoilers***
      (Lydia full body tackles a guy off the podium. How is that not objectively hilarious? And then for her to get sick after being directed to a “massage house”. Her finally reconciling with her actions because she’d always justified herself. I think the ending hits very differently for people who are aware of these kind of orchestra covers and people who had no idea wtf they were looking at.)

  2. I’m at work on a deadline and tragically don’t have time to type out all my thoughts (and honestly I shouldn’t inflict them on this comment section anyway lol), but I am kind of, in good faith, baffled by this perspective (I’ve seen someone else say something similar on Letterboxd).

    Specifically this: “Tár is rooted firmly in Lydia’s perspective, intent on preserving her legacy above all else.”? isn’t it literally about the destruction of her legacy? by the end of the movie **spoilers** she has entirely lost her reputation, her adoring fans, her position, any stable employment, the wealth and prestige that is clearly so important to her, even the opportunity to participate in the kind of classical music that was so essential to her. it’s the chance to see what we do rarely do: a sexual predator get a righteous comeuppance! and in the process, a vicious critique of all the people who enabled and encouraged her, being complicit in the tradition of classical music and it’s genius worship.

    I think the Juilliard scene could have been written better and more carefully, but I definitely don’t think what she says in it is meant to be the true message of the film— I think Fields was giving a caricature so that people who felt seduced or affirmed by that scene are put entirely on their heels by the end: “This person you were sympathizing with is actually the super fucking bad guy.”

    to be fair I am not neutral, I thought this was the best movie I’ve seen in literally years, and it hit me in a very particular way as an academic in a field that similarly reveres ~GeNIuS~, so maybe I’m being too generous, but I fucking loved it. and regardless, thank you for the chance to dish my (even in disagreement!) thoughts on the topic in such a great queer venue.

    • I completely agree with you and am equally baffled by Heather’s take on this movie. I thought this was a great movie that I couldn’t stop thinking about for days. I usually love Heather’s takes but this one feels a bit superficial or like it missed the point? Regardless, I’m thankful AS did a review and I’m glad we get to discuss this movie!

    • Completely agree with your take. This movie does not want you to empathize with Tar, except to ask yourself why you might have an impulse to. This character is a predator, the movie is pretty great.

      • “the movie doesn’t want you to empathize with tar, except to ask yourself why you have an impulse to” — exactly!! that’s what I loved so much about it. she was so seductive to me as a figure for the first part of the movie, it touched a deep pathology in me that wants exactly that kind of recognition. I think (and this is embarrassing to admit and says a lot about my personal issues lol) I even had the thought “I’d give anything to be that successful”

        by the end of the movie though, wow was I feeling fucking ashamed and called out. would you give anything, even your humanity? what would you give to be recognized by a community of people who represent exactly the white, male, classist, bourgeois power you’re supposedly against? it was really excellent.

  3. Thank you for the review! You write the tough themes in the text with brilliance and grace. I mean it’s wonderful how clear you make that there are no buts for sexism and chauvinism really.

  4. i’m still not sure if i liked this movie or not because i was like, this movie is SO LONG but also, this movie has captivated my attention? and i’ve never felt attracted to cate blanchett before this film??? i’m pretty sure that i liked it??????

    the one thing that annoyed me, besides that they wanted to tell this story this way so badly that they acted like a julliard classical music student would be this far in his education without ever having studied bach or any of the classics, is that stupid viral video! like did nobody consult with actual youths on this? it read so clearly as a manipulated edit, anybody on tiktok would’ve been like “this is a manip” from a million miles away. plus it didn’t need that edit to pack the punch it did, what she said in actuality was enough to get her on the wrong side of social media.

  5. I saw this movie entirely differently. I loved it.
    I was fully engaged. But, I also come from a music school background, which I left after 8 years because it really is as shitty as the movie portrays it to be. There is a lot of nuance and unpacking to be done.
    I feel this movie asks questions rather than answers them. Conversations of separating the art from the artist. And how no one is truly blameless. I feel like the movie is supposed to give us a drop of sympathy for Tar, while also clearly establishing that she is a Horrible Person™. But what it also makes clear is that the people she was using were also using her, and will turn against her at any moment to get what they want. What the movie shows is this world (be it the Western classical music world, Hollywood, or any other “elite” circle) is an endless cycle of predators and people trying to catch their next break. Tar’s colleagues and victims themselves become predators, and the cycle continues ever more. It makes us really examine these dynamics and make us question how can we end this cycle.
    Additionally, layered deep beneath the surface, the movie touches on the homophobia in the industry. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the conductors and composers named in the movie were queer folks that remained mostly closeted.
    Tar was living an out life that they could not and she was uplifting (most) women (which we know the sexism is abudant), trying to grow from and honor those before her, but she still exists in that same system and still became a Horrible Person™.
    So, yeah, I guess I had a really different take on the movie, but I also viewed it through a very different lens.

  6. I loved this movie so much ! And as with Carol I think it’s worth several re-watches to catch all the circular references. And the imagery ! So evocative.

    Lydia created herself out of nothing, because of music. Sure, she got caught up in all the corruption. But she reconnects with her origins at the end and is able to do a kind of a reset, I think.

    I just erased a bunch of spoilers but I’ll leave this one. At the end, she’s playing to an audience of monsters, she herself having just realized that she is one. I found that just so perfect a statement.

  7. I loved the film and, like some other commenters, saw it as a fascinating depiction of abuse of power. I appreciated ~spoilers ahead~ that we never *technically* get verification of the accusations against her, but we don’t need them. We can put the pieces together. I also loved how coldly it was shot at many points. There was once scene i remember where characters are having an important conversation and we see them from behind at a distance. And so many wide silent shots. Yes, technically it’s from her perspective but we don’t quite get to see in her mind either. I think we have a smidge of sympathy for her bc she probably wasn’t always this terrible. I think power and celebrity let her bad traits flourish and rewarded her for talking down to people like she does in the Juilliard scene.

    We saw everything we needed to see when she changed the score on the cello audition after seeing the shoes. Everything else is just watching her carefully constructed image unravel.

  8. I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to see this movie – I grew up singing classical choral music and I’ve worked with a lot of conductors. But I loved this review!

    “When she speaks, or walks on stage, or even just flicks her conductor’s baton, everyone shuts up and listens!” YES. That is how people treat conductors and now that I’m not in that world anymore, it just seems…wild.

  9. I suppose that other classical music aficionados read this summary and think of the downfall of conductor James Levine, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera, also presumably a harasser of young male hopeful musicians.

  10. I don’t really have the mental bandwith for films that are targeted at audiences over 12 right now. But The House with a Clock in Its Walls was on teevee the other night and Cate Blanchette was fun and pretty in purple. 10/10

    I enjoyed everyone’s opinions on this film though. I’ll keep it on the list!

  11. cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would make this movie! ugh.

    also, wanted to let y’all know that in the recommended articles i saw under this there are a few movie reviews and articles about Elliot Page where his name hasn’t been changed!

  12. Wow I thought the complete opposite- I read this film as showing a predators downfall, and an important comment on abuse within female relationships. I’m not entirely sure how, especially after seeing the end, where she is making cheesy fan music and throwing up in the street over the thought of buying a woman, you could reach any other conclusion. Her fall from grace was chaotic and delicious and deserved.

    I admit the Julliard scene was very on the nose, and problematic, and I find it hard to believe that a student would have got to this point in their education without studying Bach, as well as the viral video being so clearly a manip that it would never have been taken seriously. It was a little cringe and unnecessary.

    Iabsolutely loved this film. The actors where phenomenal, and the suspense it built throughout had me on the edge of my seat for the full 2 and a half hours. I also just could not stop thinking about it for days.

  13. Thank you for this insightful review. I feel like at least half my personality at this point is hating TÀR. I keep thinking about how the only person who got cancelled in this film is the young woman from the fellowship and the film doesn’t give a sh*t about about what happened to her. Here’s a tik tok I made for everyone who hates this movie: https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTRxjboBF/

  14. Such a superficial review. Without even considering the nitty gritty of the protagonist or the contemporary themes that have been well played by Blanchett. Big thumbs down. Giving it negative review just because it doesn’t coincide with your liberal narrative…

    • That’s putting it lightly.

      Lydia defamation on the movie was meant to strike a worrisome view of current society, which it succeed. By what the movie shows us, none of the accusations were true but it didn’t matter, not to the movie characters, not to these “critics”.

      This review and many replies just prove Lydia’s point, mere robots on their echo chamber.
      Ironic that the most colourful bunch demand the grayest uniformity.

  15. ok I’m a few days late here but does time exist on the internet? My initial reaction to this movie was in complete agreement with the wonderful Heather Hogan. Because it was boring! And had a lot of tropes I had seen before! And seemed to really believe that “cancel culture” is bad lol.
    But I am enjoying these other perspectives in the comments, I hadn’t considered that I was meant to experience critical distance between the content of the classroom scene and its true meaning, and that perhaps the filmmakers meant Tar to be a monster from early on.
    But ultimately, I think the completley ham-fisted way the film showed that “viral” take down video has convinced me that Heather is right. Because if we were supposed to understand the classroom scene as Tar being an overprivileged, shortsighted dinosaur then the video that destroyed her reputation would just had to have been an honest representation of the scene we saw. Instead the filmmakers made the take-down video a hacky manip, which to me seems to indicate that they agree with Tar’s tirade in the classroom scene.
    Anyhow, I love this discussion!

  16. ‪THANK YOU. While there are some great aspects to the film, I found much of what it was trying to say so cringy. And it over relied on symbolism just for symbolism sake without it actually doing anything for the plot. It’s been maddening to just see everyone fawning over it. ‬

  17. Your review is so perfect its boring. This movie does the opposite by daring to present a confusing array of telegraphed messages and values. The tension between the clarity of beauty and the muddle of artlessness is not only a gut punch in almost every scene, but perfectly matches the tension between the soulful values and meanness of almost everyone in the film. It’s devastatingly honest on a social level and a feast on the artistic side.

  18. Thank you so much for this article, Heather. I feel that Tar is grand but not great, but there is greatness in Blanchett’s performance. It’s disappointing that after we spend so much time establishing this character, at the point where she should be facing consequences (rather than just one scene after another with her lawyers and board members) the film unravels and comes to a stop. I feel that the entire third act was a mess after so much care had been taken with the specific details about the classical music world (which I know a little something about.)

    I wish that Field had cut part of the overlong expository scene at the beginning of the film in the restaurant and given us an extended scene with Lydia with her family, particularly with her mother. That scene would have been very revealing because when her brother called her “Linda” with contempt and it was clear that her background was probably working class, I thought we would get to see more about who she was behind the professional mask. I also didn’t believe the scene where she had a total violent breakdown on stage. Given that she was an EGOT, the consequences would have been much different, much more public and we deserved to see these scenes as well. The tone shifted all over the place by the end. At one point I thought, is this now a gothic, are we going to see the ghost of the woman who killed herself? We don’t even see her face but only her hair – like the woman who comes out of the well in “The Ring.” And the ending has something going that may be racially problematic, but I really don’t have the energy to deconstruct that here.

    It’s really exasperating when a film is beautifully made and all the components are there, including a mesmerizing performance but at the end one feels betrayed because it doesn’t add up to an authentic conversation, in this case, about what it really means to be artistic gifted, driven, and deeply flawed and destructive to others. Even after the film was over, most of the accusations about Lydia were pretty much only hearsay, we never got the scenes that would have helped us to know whether she guilt or a victim or not. Some people might call this an artistically brave choice, but I think it’s just muddy.

    Ironically, in the theater I saw it in, there was a trailer for “She Said”, an unequivocal take-down of a predator. I so appreciated your acknowledging that Field didn’t want to get his feet wet, the argument of the film seems to be on some level what Lydia’s mentor tells her halfway through the film, “To be accused is to be found guilty.” The problem is, as you mentioned, we never actually see the damage done to any of Lydia’s victims, so we have no idea why some people are “cancelled” for good reasons, and why, in some cases, cancelled is another way of saying facing consequences.

  19. I’m a little late to the game and still formulating my thoughts on the movie. But I take issue with the fact that this review implies opera is only for the ultra wealthy! Opera is a beautiful, living art form and you can get tickets to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC for like $35. Show me a Beyoncé or Taylor Swift concert where tickets cost that little.

  20. “Field views identity politics as a zero-sum game that seeks to destroy true art”

    Have you lost your mind?

    First off, it is questionable, at best, that Lydia Tar is framed as a sympathetic character by Field. There are things that she does in the movie that are reprehensible. Her relentless, merciless badgering of her student at Juilliard at the beginning of the movie was just one instance of her severe approach to life, and upon reflection of the rest of the movie and the messages in it, it’s clear that Field calls into question the value of neutrality or “aesthetics for aesthetics’s sake”. While Tar might have had some good points in the questions and points she was posing to her student, it was obvious that she overdid her questions and points to the extreme and this turned out to be a pretty clear character assault of her student in front of the whole class at what is supposed to be an extremely prestigious institute of learning. It was obvious that Tar violated her student’s boundaries.

    When she started to console her assistant over the news of her former protege Krista’s suicide, her dismissal of the gravity of the situation and her stroking the ego of her assistant at the same time just showed how grossly manipulative she could be. At that point, it was clear to me that Tar was not being portrayed as a sympathetic character.

    Good points and questions might have been raised in the very high level dialogue – points and questions about identity politics. But don’t confuse what one character or another says or doesn’t say with regards to what is to be construed as identity politics to be what Field, himself says about identity politics. Look at the whole movie and the trajectory of the movie and the trajectory of its main character and what Field is trying to say with the movie, overall, as what he might be saying about identity politics.

    I think that one of Field’s messages was the mercilessness of hard aesthetics, and he questioned the value of aesthetics without values. It’s pretty clear that, to him, identity politics are NOT zero-sum, because in numerous instances he demonstrates through events in the movie the ill effects of completely negating identity politics, however they are played.

    But at the end of the movie, when Blanchett’s Lydia Tar looks at the masseuses from which she has to pick and recognizes them as essentially having been lined up for her like prostitutes in much the same way as her symphony players, her vomiting reaction DOES show that she starts to realize that she has been blind to some of her own ruthlessness and manipulations. And the cold aesthetic with which she lives her life (as reflected in her apartment decor – or lack thereof) and the value-neutral take she has on artists such as Bach might have something to do with her blind side – professional ambition would do that to a person. And, of course, at the end of the day, Tar is not only a woman, but a lesbian, in a profession extremely male-dominated, and in order to succeed to the degree that she has in such a climate, she would HAVE to end up internalizing oppression to a degree, and that is likely to externalize as well, and we can see the ways that such has happened in her life. And Tar’s character does carry herself with impeccable posture and resilience, even in the spectacular downward trajectory of her professional career. So, really, although we can see clear reasons to view Tar reprehensibly, at the same time, Field does humanize her to an extent, and it’s not difficult to imagine why she is the way that she is.

    When you paint Ellen DeGeneres and J.K. Rowling and Lydia Tar and the work of Todd Field all in one broad stroke the way that you have, you make the pretty big mistake of thinking and writing very reductively – something that you criticize the movie as being when it is most definitely quite the opposite.

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