Let’s forget about all the divisive reviews for a moment and enter into the world of the simulacrum that is cinema.
Perhaps it’s not the done thing to say that I’ve looked elsewhere for my leading-lady-of-choice for the past 10 or so years, ever since I saw Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s dull and incredibly ho-hum Blue Jasmine (2013) (in fact, it was sheer hell sitting through this sloppily directed melodrama with my teenage children in tow).
To say that Cate has redeemed herself is an understatement. Cate is incredible in Tár, her interpretation of this character, a fierce and fearless conductor to a world-class German orchestra is nothing short of distinguished – she gets my vote for first, second and third prize. You may be excused to think that Cate is Tár – she has embodied her so well. And Tár is cocky, sure of herself, masculine in demeanour and attitude, she looks damn hot in a tailored evening suit and knows it. Yes, she has all the hallmarks of someone flaunting their uncompromisable rockstar status.
We first see her on stage with Adam Gopnik, (a celebrity himself, playing himself), of The New Yorker. They have met their match with each other – calculated banter dressed up as candour, a top-mark fencing bout. Lydia Tár – the icon, the gracious and passionate maestro, quick witted and revered. The world has just crowned her as its king – she’s about to go into rehearsals for Mahler’s Fifth in Berlin and will be travelling to New York for the launch of her much lauded autobiography, Tár on Tár. Her partner, Sharon, played understatedly by the always brilliant and wonderful Nina Hoss (her earlier role in The Audition (2019) is a mirror on Tár) is the orchestra’s concertmaster and first violinist. The home they share is steeped in oak browns and umber, a tasteful sophisticated mix of European sensibilities and American money. It seems that every description of Tár, (visually and verbally) of her life and her personality is in hyperbole.
Soon though, we get a glimpse through her gleaming veneer – it’s as though her mask is slightly crazed, and these hairline fractures give way ever so moderately; so that whatever is behind it seeps out and the world-at-large sinks in.
As viewers we are trained to cue in on all the potential ‘wrong moves’ Tár was making throughout a masterclass session at Juilliard. That her word-choices, attitude and her gestures (like touching a student) are meant to be confronting and comforting: because she’s of the belief that in railing at her students, she hoped to provoke a more inspired outcome. This kind of behaviour may have been tolerated (or, at least left unchecked) three years ago, but is absolutely taboo now. If we, as an audience, are world-weary for her lack of discretion – we can’t help but wonder at the same time whether our concerns for her are, in fact, misplaced. And the film’s answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that she is everything she seems to be. There is, detectably, a seething undercurrent riding in the sewer beneath the bitumen, like an old hungry dog, ready to fight to its death for a mere scrap. This is her vice – that of control, at all cost.
The name Tár, is an unusual surname: its etymology is from an old Norse word táR meaning enduring, tough and resistant. And in the proto-Germanic lineage, it means to tear – to survive by consumption, to rip apart, lacerate, efface and to misuse. Whichever way you look at it (note that this name is self-given – her original birth name was Linda Tarr), Tár is true to her essence.
She is unapologetically toxic in the treatment of her protégés; look no further than her current ‘assistant’ Francesca Lentini (sensitively played by Noémie Merlant), an aspiring young conductor; but who had to carry out the ruthless task (under Tár’s order) of voiding her earlier incarnation – and this act plays on her mind, that her own fate lies in the hands and emails of another. Tár is dismissive and possessive at the same time; so that Francesca can only be at the mercy of her at her most narcissistic – both in whim and will. The same treatment goes for her peers and colleagues – there’s little sentiment offered when tossing out an ‘old friend’ about to retire with the rest that is outdated.
For Tár, every relationship is reduced to its exchange value; once the value depreciates, she happily looks for a newer replacement model, and there are plenty of benchwarmers. Despite her behaviour she continues to be celebrated, and all this glorification seems a little sick. But that is precisely why Todd Field’s treatment of Tár, the film, is so powerful. You see, I don’t believe he’s deliberately drawing out this character to bait us – he is building her up, in order to unmask her – what if she herself loses value?
And sure enough, Tár refuses to be toppled, even when she is disgraced. Her seclusion into her studio (a gorgeous pied-à-terre) and athleticism (she runs everywhere, and shows the same energy in her conducting) only drove her further inwards. When her ability to control all that surrounds her begins to lose ground, an alternative universe opens up (conveniently, inside her head) – to offer up a place where she is always in total control. She is both the surveyor of this other world, as well as the one under surveillance. She is both the mystery sender of gifts that she is unable to interpret and the receiver of clues to her own existence. The awareness of what she is doing to herself collapses. The labyrinth awaits. Dear audience, remember that the Minotaur is nothing without Theseus: it is his act of slaying the Minotaur that has immortalised the creature. And for Tár, her only way out of her conundrum is to remain within this other mythic world – where she is the new-crowned king again.