Tár is the latest film by Todd Field, for whom the life of musicians has always been a subject matter of interest, with biopics of Karen Carpenter in Superstar (1988), David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine (1998), as well as I’m Not There (2007), a nonlinear, poetic film where Cate Blanchett, along with five other actors, played Bob Dylan. With Tár, the director’s obsession has “evolved,” to the point where he creates his own musical legend — Lydia Tár is a fictional classical music conductor played by Cate Blanchett, who is a legend herself. 

Upon seeing the teaser of Tár in which imagery of the classical music scene is accompanied by Blanchett’s beautiful voice-over about the temporality of music, I did not expect the film to be such an operatic psychological drama compact of intense dialogues. The film starts with the success of Tár: as the first female principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (where in reality, there hasn’t been one), she is rehearsing for a live recording of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, while having her book published, giving masterclasses, and going from one business lunch to another — not to mention her artsy-craftsy apartment and her silently motored yet loudly flaunting Tesla. But crises are slipping in from beyond the horizon of Tár’s grand achievement, as the toxic, abusive side of her is gradually laid out as if it is a jigsaw puzzle for the viewers to piece together bit by bit. Tár, as a lesbian conductor, must have overcome formidable obstacles to survive and even succeed in the highly patriarchal classical music world, but the film is by no means a celebration of Tár’s “girlboss-ism,” which is itself a problematic concept. After showing how Tár is the target of patriarchy, it then cruelly reveals that she simultaneously adheres and contributes to the patriarchal ruling as well, which makes a searing and accurate critique of the reality of the sexist, hegemonic classical music scene (both in terms of the authoritarian environment and process that one has to bear through to establish a career as a classical musician and the cultural hegemony that it generates).

However, American conductor Marin Alsop dismissed the film for being “antiwoman” in an interview with The Sunday Times, claiming that it is a “heart-breaking” misrepresentation of women on screen that offends her “as a woman … as a conductor… as a lesbian.” Ironically, her standpoint is precisely what the film is trying to criticise. In a scene shot in a marvellous long take where Tár is teaching a masterclass at the Juilliard School (a performing art conservatory in New York City), she pointedly challenges a student who “cancels” J. S. Bach only because he is a white, Christian, cis-straight man — which goes in the same line with Alsop’s argument following the logic that artwork is exclusively a representation of identity, overlooking both the artwork itself and the preestablished system that produces these identities. “Bach’s talent,” in Tár’s words, cannot be “reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality,” nor to the 20-something kids that he sired, in the same way as Tár being an abusive woman doesn’t mean that the film devotes to advocating that all women are abusive, nor is it what Alsop recognised as — a perpetuation of the stereotype that “women will either behave identically to men or become hysterical, crazy, insane.”

Perhaps Tár’s response to the student applies to Alsop as well: “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity”; while Blanchett also responded to this dispute on BBC Radio 4 with “utmost respect” for the conductor, defending that the film is “a meditation on power and power is genderless,” which I think is a valid argument. By citing this, I’m not saying that the aspect of identity should be disregarded from artwork or artists. Rather, both the student in the film and Alsop are situating the issues outside of their contexts: for the student, it is a conducting masterclass — be that it is a condescending one or not — where the point of discussion is the interpretation of a musical piece from the position of the interpreter (i.e., the conductor, the musician), which is and should be free from taking the composer (including their manuscript, their identity, etc.) as the Master’s discourse; in Alsop’s case, from a feminist perspective, the goal should be emancipation from patriarchal power, regardless of what the gender and sexuality of the perpetrator and the victim are. Her critique could have lain in the abuse of power both in the film and in the classical music scene — about which I’m sure she has much to say; instead, she directs the attention towards the representation of women in the most abstracted sense, which simply does not contribute to the emancipatory objective. In other words, both of their criticisms have the danger of obscuring the essential mechanism that operates power by cunningly replacing it with the smokescreen discourse of “identity,” which is itself a product of that very mechanism.

Political commentary aside, the film is mostly realistic in terms of portraying the classical music world, according to my classical musician boyfriend, except that the perfect goddess Cate Blanchett’s “conducting skills are a bit off.” But I would still say that Tár is arguably Blanchett’s most difficult and best performance in her whole acting career, and it is also the roundness and complexity of the screenplay that allowed her to develop it. Although I personally hope Michelle Yeoh wins Best Actress for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once at the upcoming Oscar tonight, it would be unfair if the Academy didn’t give that golden statuette to Blanchett.

Written by Joule Zheng Wang


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