For a film that has, if you want to be blunt about it, tanked at the box office, Tár has provoked a disproportionate amount of conversation. It’s possible that the discourse around the film – about a powerful, highly successful and extremely problematic conductor called Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett – is as interesting as the film itself.
I’ve heard multiple, conflicting interpretations of Tár: that it’s a disgraceful misrepresentation of the field of classical music; that it’s all too real; that it’s all too surreal; that it carries an intellectual heft that is rare at the movies; that it’s not half as clever as it thinks it is; that it’s not about conducting, it’s about power; that it’s not about power, it’s about narcissism; that it’s about a clash of ethics between the generations; that it’s about third-wave feminism; that its central character, in all her “unlikeability”, is arrestingly complex; that its central character is irredeemably hateful; that it’s a fascinating, even-handed anatomisation of “cancel culture”; that it is actually a “regressive” movie that takes “bitter aim” at identity politics. Then there is an extensive online debate devoted to decoding its eerie final act. There’s something exciting about a film that is such an open text, that demands so much discussion.
It is not unproblematic, though. The classical music world is talking about Tár, and not in a good way. (A leading London conservatoire, for example, politely declined to host the UK premiere.) The anxiety derives, not least, from the fact that the biography of the central character bears more than a passing resemblance to that of conductor Marin Alsop. Like Tár she is American, was mentored by Leonard Bernstein, is a lesbian, is partner to and co-parent with a sometime orchestral player, and created a foundation for early-career female conductors. Alsop herself has criticised the film, and I have some sympathy with her. Tár, among other things, is a bully and an abuser, and Alsop is not. Her wider point, though, is that a tiny handful of women have struggled to push through into big roles in conducting. Of those who have “made it”, some are, for sure, pleasanter and better behaved than others. But of them, literally none are moulded like the fictional Tár. The kind of abuse committed by Tár – blackballing, using power to extract sex – is unhappily present in classical music, but the perpetrators, known largely by rumour and word-of-mouth rather than, yet, by open accusation, are men. Women in classical music may be bullies and behave appallingly. But none to my knowledge has allegations of abuse hovering over them of the kind that, for example, resulted in the firing of the late James Levine from his post at the Metropolitan Opera.
Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener in A Late Quartet (2012). Photograph: Artificial Eye/Allstar
The counter-argument to this …….