Cate Blanchett’s New Movie ‘Tár’ Is About So Much More Than Cancel Culture
The new Cate Blanchett film reveals how a cultural obsession with the "troubled genius" allows humans to turn into monsters.
Director and writer Todd Field’s Tár is a tour de force, and the surging, ferocious centrepiece is Cate Blanchett’s troubled – and troubling – Lydia Tár.
— Warning: This piece contains several spoilers for the upcoming film Tár. —
The movie opens as Tár is waiting to ascend to the stage as a guest of the prestigious New Yorker Festival, where she is being interviewed as one of the most accomplished, awarded, and pioneering composer-conductors in living history. From the first moment we see her, Blanchett’s sculpted face — sharp cheekbones and a clenched, angular jaw — are lit with a dewy glow. In this movie, like no other, the lighting is fascinating in its power to elevate a character to almost God-like divinity. The camera loves her unnaturally perfect porcelain skin and we, too, are captivated by her fearsome, luminescent presence.
She may be intimidating, but she is anxious as she waits in the wings – fending off facial tics and sucking in air as if she’s going to leap from a tall building in the moments before she is ushered up the stairs.
Her stage interview makes evident that Tár is capable of being extremely charming and articulate; recalling personal and professional details of composers and symphonies with ease and candour. She saves her brute force for her classes, berating students who don’t acquiesce to her charms or cower in her presence.
She is, perhaps, the ultimate sociopath: thrilled by the pursuit of adoration and obsession but threatened by the enormity of the risk once another human begins to demand her attention and devotion. Sycophantic, obsessed young women revealing sexual relationships with one of the most powerful professionals within the classical music world do not augur well for a woman who wants to be an untarnished legend.
Field has mercifully not simplified Tár into a two-dimensional villain. She is capable of nuanced emotions within her marriage, as a mother and in caring for her elderly mentor Andris Davis, despite the Berlin Orchestra losing interest in him, their one-time star conductor.
We are never privy to Tár’s alleged history of sexual predation, nor do we ever meet the young woman and Tár’s one-time protégé – Krista – who is emailing Tár and her assistant Francesca with increasingly frantic demands.
Much of what we ascertain about Tár is through what she allows us to see via glimpses of her home and professional life. This murkiness is befitting for a woman who doesn’t dare to reflect on her own motivations, depravities, or the consequences of her manipulative behaviour on the men and women around her.
When Krista dies by suicide, Francesca is bereft and wrought with guilt. Tár is more concerned with deleting any trace of a connection between them. Her inbox is full of emails from Krista begging Tár to speak to her and to explain why Krista has been cast out of the orchestral industry she has spent her whole life seeking to work in. Despite denying a personal relationship to lawyers and to the board of the Berlin Philharmonic, which is concerned by increasing media speculation over Tár’s alleged infidelities, we are witness to her expertly delivered lies.
There are countless emails from Tár to the heads of international orchestras in which she labels Krista “disturbed” and insists that her former student is not fit for employment. She has destroyed not only Krista’s work opportunities and reputation, but her life. To Field’s credit, he does not spell out exactly what happened between Tár and her student. It is largely left to the audience’s imagination as to the extent of their personal and sexual relationship.
Lydia Tár (or Linda Tarr, as we come to learn) was monstrous, but she was the product of centuries of singularly talented artists elevated by institutions into predatory, narcissistic “geniuses”. In 2020, liturgical composer David Haas was named by multiple women as a sexual predator and abuser who had exploited his power for over 40 years to grope, forcibly kiss, and stalk the women musicians working with him. There are centuries of composers and conductors who were alleged – and proven – to exploit and harass the women and men they saw as subservient to them.
We are a society that elevates abusive, narcissistic and sociopathic people to the heights of “genius” if they are deemed singularly talented. Authors, musicians of every genre — moguls, fashion designers and painters — as they leave a wake of battered, traumatised victims in their wake, we focus on the art.
There is a scene towards the end of Tár in which Lydia walks into a massage parlour in an unnamed South East Asian city expecting a standard massage (she is suffering nerve damage to her shoulder) and she is directed “to the fishbowl”. There, she is confronted with a glassed-off room in which young girls are assembled — much like an orchestra — with numbers on display so that clients can pick and choose their prey.
Though she looks horrified, Lydia does what is expected of her, picking out a young girl who looks only a few years older than her young daughter, Petra. In the next scene, she staggers out, vomiting into the gutter. There’s a sense that she knows what she is doing is wrong — a Western tourist exploiting a child — but with nobody to stop her, it is a trajectory she can’t resist.
It is the story of her career.
Her charisma – both physical and intellectual – is the intoxicating power that she wields over the young women in her classes and her orchestra. Seducing women that she sees as a challenge is a game to her, but she meets her match in Olga. It is their burgeoning professional and personal relationship that reveals malevolent power games: firing long-time friends and colleagues, demoting veteran musicians, lavishing her gaze and praise and gifting Olga with a solo performance that would normally be granted to a senior cellist. It is stunningly scheming, and even more chilling for the cool, calm and collected way that Tár carries out her plans. We can only conclude that she’s done this many times before.
Tár bases her outfits and her professional photoshoots on famous male composers she admires. She’s modelled herself entirely on monstrous men, and the classical music institutions have rewarded her in every way for her sociopathic behaviour.
Reviews of the film that have focused on cancel culture and infidelity are not getting to the heart of the movie, which is about the systemic encouragement of narcissistic “troubled geniuses” to financial and celebrity superiority, and how we — as consumers — are complicit. Whatever the truth of her life, the cinematic Lydia Tár is a monster, but one that we made.
Watching her unscrupulously manipulate, exploit, and claw her way to the podium is not easy viewing, and neatly tied up endings don’t exist in Field’s provocative movie, but this is all the more reason to see it. Looking away — or excusing abuse in the name of artistic genius — enables ordinary humans to transform into monsters.
Cat Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.