Discover more from Songs of Sunrise
Tár: More #DéjàVu than #MeToo
This movie wants you to believe it has thought all thoughts, but ultimately says nothing new about classical music or abuse of power
Oscar-tipped films rarely focus on classical music. One of the more memorable was Shine in 1996, for which Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his portrayal of a pianist recovering from a mental breakdown — and before that Amadeus in 1984, which fictionalized Mozart’s life. With Cate Blanchett delivering an electrifying performance as a narcissistic, abusive fictional conductor who has broken through the male-dominated conducting world, Tár looks set to be this decade’s big classical music movie. It’s been widely hailed as ‘a nuanced take on #MeToo and cancel culture’, won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and was named Best Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and National Society of Film Critics. Nonetheless, it hasn’t been without its critics; the conductor Marin Alsop said that she was ‘offended by Tár as a woman, as a conductor, as a lesbian’, and Amy Taubin slammed it as ‘one of the stupidest movies I’ve seen in many a long year’.
So when Tár released in the UK last weekend, of course I went to see it. It touches on many of my interests — specifically women’s careers in classical music, abuse of power within the industry, and perceptions of industry diversification. Given the tone of most write-ups, I was hoping to see a considered, challenging, and thought-provoking take on these issues. Sadly, though, Tár is a regressive film masquerading as a progressive one. Hiding behind phenomenal acting and clever camerawork, the script takes a sledgehammer to complex topics, and ultimately has very little new to say about any of the ideas that it addresses.
That Juilliard Scene: Diversity and Musical “Greatness”
Many of the reservations I have about this film are neatly encapsulated in one scene where Tár teaches a masterclass at the Juilliard School of Music, so I’m going to start there. A student, Max, begins conducting a piece — which we are later told is by the real composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir — and they are barely a bar in before Tár stops them to dismiss the piece as uninteresting and unimportant. She questions them about why they have chosen to conduct this piece, as opposed to one by, say, Bach or Beethoven. ‘As a BIPOC pangender person,’ Max replies, ‘I would say Bach’s misogynistic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.’
Tár disagrees, and launches into an impassioned defence of the Western classical canon, pointing out that if Bach can be reduced to his identity so, too, can Max. Wouldn’t they rather that people judged them for the quality of their work, not their beliefs or identity or personality? All that matters is the music — it’s irrelevant whether it was written by Bach or Thorvaldsdóttir, so long as it is great music. She lampoons Max in front of the class, sneering, using her position as a tutor and a world-famous conductor to belittle her student. Humiliated by somebody they admire, Max offers no response. They storm out of the classroom, telling Tár that she is a ‘fucking bitch’.
There are two related issues being discussed here, slightly conflated. The first is the question about whether we can divorce a work from its creator, and it’s a topic at the heart of Tár as a whole. It’s an important and hotly debated question, not least because classical music history is littered with artists whose views are problematic and offensive, certainly now and sometimes in their own lifetimes as well. Wagner is the most obvious example. He was a notorious antisemite and became the favoured composer of the Nazi regime, but his music is still widely performed, recorded, and lauded. There’s widespread disagreement over what we should do with Wagner: some try to excuse his operas by arguing that although Wagner’s writings were antisemitic his music wasn’t, or that it isn’t fair to read Wagner’s operas retrospectively through the knowledge that they were later appropriated by the Nazis. Others maintain that antisemitism is ‘at the heart of’ operas like Die Meistersinger. At least part of the nervousness around Wagner is that if we stop performing works written by composers with unpalatable political beliefs, where do we draw the line? Would we need to abandon the entire classical canon altogether?
The second issue concerns diversity and representation within classical music. Max represents the position which argues that classical music should not be limited to a narrow, core repertoire of works that are mostly composed and then performed by white men. Instead, we should be able to hear a broad spectrum of voices and perspectives reflected in the music that we play and within the industry as a whole. Because of the systemic and structural forces that have kept the classical canon white and male, redressing the balance needs intervention. Multiple strategies have been adopted, from establishing majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestras, to organisations taking voluntary pledges to achieve gender equality. Progress, though, is slow — only 7.7% of the pieces played by orchestras internationally are written by women. Only twelve of the one hundred most-booked conductors are women. The top ten most-played concert composers are all historical men.
But this position is crudely caricatured in Todd Field’s script, and Max’s brief lines uncritically linking music and identity present an easily demolished straw man — which Tár adeptly does, in a sustained monologue. The whole way in which this scene is presented gives the impression that however objectionably Tár may present her perspective she is, ultimately, right; that there is “great” music and there is “diverse” music, that great music is apolitical because of its ‘magnitude’, and that any attempts to diversify the classical canon represent so much political posturing.
Max is given no chance to respond to Tár’s position which, if actually engaged with, could just as easily be critiqued. Is she really suggesting that music and identity bear no relationship to one another? Is it not possible that multiple forms of music might be appealing to different people? That there might be music by non-canonic composers that delights, moves, inspires, impassions — all the things that she purports to admire? She asks Max who gets to decide which pieces get played; by the same token, who gets to decide that Bach should be performed in place of Thorvaldsdóttir? But by having Max leave with no riposte other than a gendered insult, the impression given is that those advocating for industry diversity have no sensible response to Tár’s points. This is obviously a film aimed at people well-versed in classical music past and present, and I am sure this scene will have been gratifying for those who are inclined to look dimly on calls for a more diverse industry — indeed the scene reportedly received ‘squawks of glee’ at a Venice screening, and as one journalist admitted, they were ‘kind of cheering her on in that scene.’
It may be less dramatically compelling to actually engage seriously with the many different ideas surrounding music and identity, but it’s no intellectual pièce de résistance to present two reductive positions, then give one more air time so it seems slightly more nuanced and implicitly declare it the victor. And it is especially frustrating coming from a movie that is so desperately trying to signal that it is Smart, it is Political, and it is Serious. Being as generous as possible, perhaps we are supposed to feel uncomfortable about Tár’s position here because she delivers it in such an aggressive way — and because her ultimate downfall demonstrates that it is not as possible to divorce work from personality in the way she suggests. But I am sceptical, because of the ambivalent position that Tár takes about abusive behaviour more generally.
“Cancel Culture” and #MeToo
Tár has been lauded as a ‘standout #MeToo movie and the best film to date on “cancel culture”', because it refuses to condemn Tár for her behaviour. And it is true that the film excels at presenting a nuanced character portrait of a cruel and manipulative woman. She is humanised, we are invited to empathise with her. The film adopts her perspective throughout, throws doubt on whether victims are telling the truth, keeps the most severe of her alleged indiscretions off-screen, and has others take her words and actions out of context to make her appear worse than she is. As the New Yorker put it, the film maintains ‘a calculated measure of doubt’ about whether Tár really has done everything of which she is accused.
By the end of the film, we are supposed to feel that there is an ‘underlying mystery about whether Lydia Tár’s downfall is self-inflicted, or rather fast-tracked by malevolent forces.’ Which troubles me deeply, because it is only a ‘mystery’ if Tár’s on-screen acts, the things we know she has done, are not enough to warrant censure. But Tár’s on-screen behaviour is not — or should not be — considered borderline. She humiliates her student in front of the class, touches them inappropriately, is aggressive, bullying, and domineering. Later, she appoints and promotes a player based on how attractive she finds her, and caresses her face during rehearsals as she praises her performance. This might once have been expected or excused within orchestras, but it absolutely should not be now. By framing this kind of behaviour as questionable but not inexcusable, Tár normalises it.
In addition, Tár subtly upholds the deeply rooted and damaging idea that such behaviour might be a ‘price we pay for great music-making’. As one reviewer put it, ‘her dethroning comes with an air of lamentation founded in the belief that excellence means something in a world frightfully short on bona fide geniuses’. This is hardly a novel idea, but taking this position feels not just tired but grossly irresponsible in the very real context of alleged abuse cases that the film references (James Levine and Charles Dutoit, both conductors who were dismissed from their posts following allegations of sexual abuse and assault). Talent should never excuse abuse, and nor should talent be thought synonymous with tyranny. We do not need a film that says otherwise under the guise of “nuance” — especially a film that so deliberately and obviously blurs fiction and reality.
I am truly confused, therefore, about what makes this a ‘standout #MeToo’ movie, or indeed why it brings anything new at all to discussions about so-called cancel culture. One reason that abusive behaviour continues — both within the classical industry and elsewhere — is because the default position has been to disbelieve victims, to give benefit of the doubt to abusers, and to excuse any behaviour that is ‘detestable’ but not ‘actually criminal’. Nor is it novel to make a film that encourages empathy with unpleasant characters (see the controversy caused by Joker, for just one example). So what, then, is new or interesting about Tár’s message — that abusive people are humans too, and that brilliant musicians can also act dreadfully? Why is it a ‘standout #MeToo’ moment to cast doubt on whether victims are telling the truth, and to never show the consequences of abusive behaviour from any perspective other than the perpetrator?
And finally, Tár on gender
There is one way in which the makers of Tár have proved themselves excruciatingly insightful about perceptions of gender, and that is by casting a woman as the lead. Because as Cate Blanchett has herself acknowledged, this film probably could not have been made with a man in the title role. Why? Because ‘we understand so absolutely’ what corruption of power looks like when a man is the perpetrator. With a woman in the lead, Tár is edgy. With a man in the lead, Tár is egregious.
Ok, so maybe then we can interpret Tár as saying that feminism needs to be structural, and promoting individuals who perpetuate existing systems changes nothing. Or maybe it’s an indictment of how very far we still have to go in terms of taking women seriously in classical music, if a woman being in this role feels so far from reality that it allows this kind of story to be told.
But Tár is not a film about gender. In fact apart from Tár saying at the beginning that she hasn’t really experienced any gender prejudice and that she might open up her conducting fellowship to men as well as women, gender is not particularly engaged with. Gender is only relevant insofar as it enabled the film to be made at all. And that feels less like a searing commentary on gender and feminism, and more like using a woman as a fig leaf for a dreadful script that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Blanchett has defended the film by saying that ‘power is genderless’, but Tár’s positive reception has shown that the way we think about people in power might not be so genderless after all.
It’s a real shame that a movie that tries so aggressively to signal intellectual credibility makes practically no effort whatsoever to engage with the very real issues around gender and conducting. There are no attempts to imagine what the musical world would look like with a woman like Tár being so celebrated. On the flip side, there’s no acknowledgement of how extremely implausible it would be in reality for a woman conductor to be excused from the kind of behaviour that Tár displays. The tyrannical conductor is a gendered stereotype, and women acting in this way simply wouldn’t be invited to work with orchestras.
Frustratingly, I think there is a version of this film that could have tackled these issues properly and still kept Tár as unpleasant and predatory. I don’t think that we always need to show women in a positive light, even in an industry which is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. Women can be unkind, petty, vindictive, and dangerous, and I strongly believe that we need an artistic space in which that can be explored. But if you’re going to make a character’s gender a central part of a script that tries to be realistic, you have to deal with the gendered world in which that character operates. Tár does not.
Stuffed end-to-end with pretentious name-dropping and niche cultural references, Tár is a film that tries to dazzle with pseudo-intellectualism. But under its sheen of Schopenhauer and Sackville-West, it does and says nothing new. It rehearses tedious clichés about aesthetic value and hackneyed tropes about musicians themselves. The script is so lacking in insight about the music it focuses on that it might as well not have been about music at all — it comes as no surprise that Tár was originally envisaged as a Wall Street trader or architect, not a conductor. But what it has done very successfully is demonstrate how far we still have to go towards addressing predatory behaviour and achieving gender parity, if this is what is considered cutting-edge and award-worthy. I guess we can call that an achievement.