Tarred with the wrong brush: Critics of Blanchett’s new film miss the point

On the weekend I got around to seeing Tár, the film starring Cate Blanchett as the fictional Lydia Tár, first-ever female “maestro” of the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a contentious film – an admittedly low bar these days – and is this week receiving a fresh round of publicity ahead of next month’s Academy Awards. Let’s get this out of the way first: if Our Cate doesn’t collect an Oscar for her virtuoso performance then I propose we stage a national riot in the way folks in other countries vent when they lose the soccer.

There’s been abundant venting about director Todd Field’s third major film, which turns a sceptical gaze on cancel culture and the #MeToo movement.

Cate Blanchett stars as a conductor in the film Tár.Credit:Focus Features

“One of the dangerous and alarming things about the film is that it does not invite sympathy or offer easy solutions,” said Blanchett in an interview with The Guardian published this week. “No one is entirely good, and no one is entirely innocent. It’s a very nuanced examination of the corrupting nature of institutional power, but it’s also a very human film because at the centre you have someone in a state of existential crisis.”

As is often the case, it is the response to Tár, as much as the film itself, that’s most revealing, of our own existential crisis around power, truth and the role of art.

Early on in the film Lydia is being interviewed at The New Yorker festival by journalist Adam Gopnik, who plays himself – and thus plays us because we immediately think Blanchett’s character must be based on someone real.

Did being a woman hinder her rise to the top? Gopnik asks the conductor. No, she says; that battle is long won.

“If Our Cate doesn’t collect an Oscar for her virtuoso performance then I propose we stage a national riot.”Credit:Focus Features

Indeed, Lydia embodies male privilege in every respect save her body. She’s remote from her lesbian partner and her daughter, referring to herself as “the father”. She has an eye for a young woman in her orchestra. She elevates and destroys the fortunes of underlings or musical elders as decisively as she wields her baton on the podium.

When #MeToo-style allegations surface against her it is the tabloid New York Post that dares publish them. For liberal media types, Lydia is not an easily digestible Harvey Weinstein-type villain. And in any event we have no concrete details of wrongdoing on her part, just vague accusations and a ghostly unease that stalks the maestro on her daily run through the streets of Berlin. (Or are these simply history’s ghosts?) We remain none the wiser as she gradually loses the plot and, after the woke mobilise against her on social media, her status.

The most predictable and shallow criticism of the film is that it has the abusive predator as a female.

Lesbian conductor Marin Alsop said Tár left her “offended,” given there are so many abusive male conductors – “actual, documented men” – the film could have been based on.

I’d argue that making the conductor female crystallises what should be the political focus of the #MeToo reckoning: sexual misconduct simply as a subset of abuse of power and institutional cover-up that helps enable the abuse. We’re given no direct evidence of Lydia’s sexual liberties, but we know she has contempt for transparency and fair process and that ought to be the point.

Far more interesting is the unsparing takedown in October from The New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody. Brody doesn’t criticise the film for depicting a female abuser, but he criticises it for almost everything else.

Tár is a regressive film that takes bitter aim at so-called cancel culture and lampoons so-called identity politics,” he writes.

Do you get the sense a very raw nerve has been hit?

‘The careful ambiguities of Tár offer a sort of plausible deniability to its relentlessly conservative button-pushing.’

He seems most incensed that the allegations against Lydia remain “ambiguous” – a word he uses repeatedly – which he implies makes her accusers seem hysterical and “rushing to judgment”. “The careful ambiguities of Tár offer a sort of plausible deniability to its relentlessly conservative button-pushing …” he writes.

It is the logic of our times: taking an ambiguous position equates to siding against the less powerful.

And yet alongside the overdue reckoning with monsters such as Weinstein, the #MeToo movement has suffered damage to its own moral authority thanks to bracket creep. It has come to encompass the consensual office affair gone wrong, the kind that compromises and tests everyone in its orbit, leaving anger, paranoia and permanently blurred boundaries in its wake. Such scenarios often feature complicated, volatile and “ambiguous” power dynamics.

As for Brody’s indignation about the lampooning of “so-called” identity politics it centres on a much-talked-about scene. Lydia, teaching at a prestigious music academy, savages a student for declaiming that,“as a BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) pangender person,” he can’t take Bach seriously because he was a misogynist. During their exchange, the student’s leg jiggles uncontrollably – a sign he’s less a rebel seeking to tear down the musical canon than a snowflake seeking affirmation.

Brody himself unwittingly lampoons identity politics with all his “so-calleds”. Here’s an existential question: if cancel culture and identity politics don’t actually exist, as Brody implies, how can they be lampooned at all?

Tár asks if great art can survive the dubiousness of its creator, or the ambiguity of its message. On that score, I fear the jury’s still out.

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