Australian US actress Cate Blanchett (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)
Artillery Row On Cinema

The human subject

Tár is a film of moving ambiguities

“It’s always the question that involves the listener. It’s never the answer, right?”

As the eponymous protagonist Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) explains to her student, musical questions are always more interesting than their answers. Exactly the same can be said of the film, which ultimately conceals more than it ever reveals. Its ambiguity is profoundly compelling.

The film follows Tár as she prepares for a recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. For this superstar conductor and noted ethnomusicologist, it is the crowning moment of her career. The opening interview with Tár serves as a positive exposition of her accomplishments, but what follows is a monstrous development of the power that this commands.

Tár evades stereotypification. She is a self-proclaimed “U-Haul lesbian” and adoptive parent who entertains fans, shuns her family, aids refugees, tramples on colleagues, preys on “fresh meat”, prefers “maestro” to “maestra, and has no time for identity politics.

A dramatic representation of vacuous moralising, its weaponisation, and the subsequent loss of aesthetic value in educative settings

This complex character is a symphony in herself — a heady concoction of virtue and vice. Unsurprisingly, she has not been received well in certain circles. The complaints of preeminent conductor Marin Alsop have garnered much media attention: “To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking”. Sadly, she rather misses the point. Todd Field’s exquisite screenplay forces us to reckon with characters that resist categorisation. Perhaps Alsop would prefer plastic fantastic characters whose morality is a direct consequence of their biology.

In the most striking scene, Tár contends with a student — particularly inculcated in cancel culture — who refuses to engage with the music of Bach: “white male cis composers are just not my thing”. Tár combatively states that “the narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity”. Alas, there is no reasoning with his echo-chamber rhyme. He calls her a “fucking bitch” and storms out of the masterclass. Tár laments after him, “the architect of your soul appears to be social media”. Field provides a dramatic representation of vacuous moralising, its weaponisation, and the subsequent loss of aesthetic value in educative settings.

The film resists cultural dichotomy. Philosophical insights, such as reference to Arthur Schopenhauer’s linking of sensitivity to noise with heightened intelligence and creativity, disorient polarised preconceptions of human behaviour today. Tár’s obsession with the ringing of rogue doorbells and the slight rattle in her car suddenly makes sense. 

We are also reminded that Schopenhauer once pushed a woman down the stairs. Prophetically, Tár’s obsessive personality boils over in an act of climactic violence. Her compulsion to control the chaos of the world is both her genius and hamartia. Musical perfection achieved through obsessive domination of her orchestra is a manifestation of the same control that, outside of the concert hall, leaves a trail of devastation in its wake. Genius fosters madness, and madness fosters self-destruction.

Blanchett captures Tár’s private fragility, which is exacerbated as her career enters increasing disarray, but also the unrelenting austerity of her public podium persona. Her intense and unabating performativity is fully deserving of the Best Actress nomination at the upcoming Oscars (12 March). She channels a certain Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) with her tongue-in-cheek suggestion that “we are all capable of murder” before cutting to compliment her interlocutor with “that is a fantastic handbag by the way” without taking a breath. From cold cruelty to an infatuation with a prodigious cellist, Blanchett navigates a rich range of emotion with impressive aplomb. It is only her caricaturish conducting skills that leave a little to be desired.

The film, with five other Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Editing), raises unsettling questions that remain unanswered. We never get to hear the Adagietto (4th movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony) in full. We never find out what happened to the people in her destructive path: an adoring daughter, a troubled assistant and an exasperated wife. The film is a refreshing reminder of the intricacies of the human subject, a realistic portrait where complex personalities and artistic products are laid bare. We are not told what to think, but encouraged to think for ourselves.

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