Lydia Tár

Ian Parker has seen a 2022 film about her.


Tár, directed by Todd Field, stars Cate Blanchett in a role that has drawn much praise, with deserved Oscar nominations, but a little less successful than the superstar celebrity conductor she plays, who already counts Oscars among her many awards. The film is so convincing in its portrayal of Lydia Tár that many viewers – or those praising or complaining about the film second-hand – think or make her real.

Reality and ambiguity

This film is, among other things, about the real, about the horrific obscene material structure that underpins the alluring cultural superstructure of classical music. Running at 2 hours 38 minutes, this is a gruelling experience, taking us through a number of different genres of film – success story, paranoiac ghost thriller and come-uppance tale. It is about power, power that is usually enacted and represented as being about the power of men over women, but which corrupts and poisons every relationship.

There is a warning at showings of the film that this includes themes of “sexual abuse”, but that is actually grossly misleading (and insulting to those who are really subjected to that kind of experience). Although there is certainly manipulation and some kind of grooming going on here, we are left in the position of much of those involved, to try and make sense of uncertainty, ambiguity.

What is clear is that this is about figures accorded power – and Lydia Tár is only one of those in the film – who come to enjoy it, and about the attraction and fear of those who want a piece of it. Tár herself has had to climb up the classical music greasy pole, and knows what it must take for anyone else to join her. She is as bewitched by her power as her entourage. What we see played out is a world which is structured in such a way that only those prepared to act like Tár will make the grade.

Humiliation and complaint

Among the many complaints about the film are that too long is spent in the first hour or so setting up the character of Tár. There is a stunning scene early on, for example, where Tár is interviewed on stage, with an account of her career and a commanding performance of agile intelligence and creative ability. And so there is for sure a danger that because the focus seems to be on her, with Blanchett at times portraying a conflicted monster, we could imagine that the problem lies inside her.

The nastiness and intolerance – the control freakery that entails ritual public humiliation of others who are yet to make it to the top in the classical music world – is hinted at in many different subtle ways. There is a subtle undercurrent of racism – cause of some outrage – with the final surreal scene looping back in a strange way to the account of Tár’s five-year fieldwork in the Amazon, but this is about racism, showing how it is woven into these kind of careers.

What is also woven in are obsequious assumptions about what you need to pander to, what buttons you need to push, to make it, and much nastier in the stage interview is the way Tár throws in Hebrew words – displays admiration and familiarity with Jewish colleagues – that is supposed to endear her to the audience, but which raises deeper more unpleasant questions about how philosemitism – the performance of love of Jews – often operates as the flipside of antisemitism (this in the way that those, like Tár’, who are not Jewish, accord power to Jews, and seem to want to get closer to that imagined power; we could term this the ‘John Mann syndrome’).

Woke and sleep

Much attention has been directed at the scene in which Tár calls out a young musician in a master-class at the prestigious Juilliard School after they make a political point; “As a Bipoc pangender person”, they say, “I’m not into cis white male composers like Bach”. Some on the right have homed in on Tár’s response, missing the irony that this woman cannot even acknowledge the nature of the power structures she has had to work through in order to get where she is.

This is not so much an indictment of so-called “cancel culture” as an indication of how deeply Tár herself is implicated in forms of power. Neither is Tár to be admired for her dedicated attachment to the cause she has fought for, which some weird psychoanalytic readings of the film have indulged in.

Another musician who is name-dropped in the film – one of the reflexive points in which we see that the film itself is part of the stuff that it is about – has complained about the film; Marin Alsop, a lesbian conductor, objected that the film was misogynist and homophobic, and the responses by Todd Field and Cate Blanchett resorted to liberal platitudes about the nature of power instead of spelling what it is about heteropatriarchy that makes power so toxic. There is great music in the film, incidentally, by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who also gets a name check in the film.

A friend who was once based at the Royal Northern College of Music (a high-status conservatoire in Manchester that could have been used as a location for scenes in Tár) was asked by her daughter after she had seen and been shocked by the film, whether this is what the classical music world is really like. Yes, was the reply. This is a film that lays bare some of the lures of power, and shows us suffering at every level, including among those who think they have made it to the top. Maybe you won’t sleep well after you’ve seen this film, and neither should you unless you are doing something about it.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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