who’s afraid of lydia tár?

That many audience members apparently mistook Lydia Tár for a real person to me says less about Tár‘s sharp verisimilitude and more about the degraded landscape of contemporary American cinema, where practically the only movies permitted to exist outside the Marvel Extended Universe are biopics. Still, the genius of Tár lies in its counterfactual hyperrealism and its implicit fuck you to the culture of based-on-a-true-story, first-woman-to schmaltz. Tár is a parallel universe story about a world fascinatingly near our own. Its speculative setup thwarts the moralistic style of reception that has become dominant probably in large part due to the prevalence of biopics. This mode of reading encourages audiences to assess the quality of fictional texts as if they were evaluating the political/ethical decency of real people and views, like Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. That Tár seems real but isn’t tempts us to reach for our pitchforks/op eds and then cleverly forces us to question the very instinctiveness of that move.

Yet for all the precision of its plausibility, there is a strange void at the center of Tár, a film nominally about the abuse of power which tells the story of a character seemingly incapable of abusing anyone. Todd Field’s decision to obscure the sexual misconduct Tár is accused of committing, relegating it to a hidden past that surfaces only in cryptic emails, gossip, and subtext, is an effective choice. Or rather, it would be an effective choice if it this is what the film actually did. Instead, its central section consists of a sequence in which Tár pointedly does not abuse a young woman, the new member of the Berlin Philharmonic, Russian cellist Olga (played by real-life cellist Sophie Kauer).

As soon as Olga joins the orchestra, Tár develops a crush on her. (Are we to think this is a crime in itself?) What follows can only be described as a parade of simping. Tár takes Olga for a lunch, fulfilling a tradition for new members of the orchestra, and thus jumping the gun somewhat as Olga has not actually been confirmed as a member yet. In a Roger Ebert review Glenn Kenny writes that “The look Lydia gives Olga at their first lunch is almost literally wolfish,” again raising the question of whether it is desire itself we are putting on trial. In any case, it is Olga who dominates the conversation, boisterously ordering before Tár has a chance to do so. (The wolfishness of Tár’s expression might be hunger for Olga, and it might also be literal hunger—she eats only a cucumber salad, having mentioned at the beginning of the film her aim to stay thin in advance of the upcoming performance of Mahler 5 that serves as the film’s climax.) Olga tells Tár about her idolization of Jacqueline du Pré and the performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto she gave as a 13-year-old soloist with her youth orchestra. Tár is enraptured and goes on to add the Elgar to the Mahler 5 program and select Olga as the soloist, to the horror of the rest of the cello section and the orchestra’s concert master (who is also Tár’s wife).

There is a sense in the lunch scene and throughout the film that Olga is unabusable, a quality implicitly tied to her tough, ultra-direct Russian disposition. This is curiously juxtaposed against the film’s representation of young Americans as hypersensitive and fragile, particularly in the abominable (and notably racist) Juilliard scene. Here Tár recalls the horrible second season of The White Lotus, with its seething contempt for the spoiled, ineffective, self-obsessed Gen Z archetype Portia and her seething contempt for her fellow Gen Z archetypes, as conveyed in her infamous gratitude that Albie is “not nonbinary.” I would not go as far as Richard Brody in calling Tár reactionary and regressive. I thought the comparison between #MeToo and Denazification—both projects that created panic among the powerful yet ultimately failed to disrupt the status quo—was not heretical, but fascinating. Yet there does seem to be strange traces of right-wing neo-Cold War hysteria at play here, panic that 21-year-old “BIPOC pangender” snowflakes will never outmatch straight-talking Russian prodigies and thus doom the US to global irrelevance.

Another way in which Tár echoes The White Lotus is through scenes of nominal workplace misconduct that strangely metamorphosize into tales of tragic lesbianism that seem straight out of the 1920s. Having become infatuated with Olga and instantly granted her the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of performing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Berlin Phil, Tár brings her to New York on a press trip for the book Tár on Tár. After determinedly dodging a cartoonish woke mob picketing her reading, Tár falters when she sees Olga flirting with a young man in the audience, with whom she seemingly meets up later after claiming to be too jet-lagged to get dinner with Tár. The scene eerily resembles the episode in which the White Lotus hotel manager Valentina, a middle-aged lesbian who for some reason has never slept with a woman, asks the younger employee she has a crush on out for dinner on her birthday, only to learn that the woman is engaged to a male member of the hotel staff.

In both scenes, what threatens to become an episode of workplace misconduct—two women using their position to go on dates with their direct inferiors—turns out to be no match for the supposedly impenetrable power of heterosexuality, leaving the lesbians at its center heartbroken, powerless, lonely, and pathetic. Aside from the anachronism of the eternal Well of Loneliness in which these two narratives are apparently set, there is an internal inconsistency at play. Tár is obviously supposed to possess immense sexual power—if not, why cast Cate Blanchett in the role?—which she has apparently been abusing. Yet with the exception of an early scene in which she flirts with a journalist, Tár’s sexual power itself hardly appears onscreen, and its abuse never does. (Tár’s treatment of her assistant Francesca, which several clueless reviewers have described as shockingly cruel, does not count. I have been a Francesca. Basically all assistants are treated this way.) In fact, Tár seems so repulsed by the possibility of her own sexual power that when she is asked to pick a Filipina masseuse from a lineup in a scene that evokes commercial sex, she is so horrified that she throws up!

Maybe Tár is in fact a film about a reformed abuser. This would explain why its central character is psychologically tortured by her own conscience, not a typical experience of those who serially exploit others. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the real reason why, despite all her social and professional power, Tár is not shown to commit sexual abuse is due to a hesitancy surrounding this character’s sexuality, an unwillingness to fully commit to the film’s own premise. Tár is notably devoid of any sexual contact save a single kiss between Tár and her wife (and the dreamlike flashbacks of intimacy that torment her). Again, this could be an interesting choice, potentially a way to convey the lack of eroticism that surrounds coercive and exploitative sex. Yet this doesn’t explain why, when Tár’s new favorite rebuffs her advances, instead of becoming cruel and aggressive she melts away like a crestfallen wallflower, literally hiding when she catches Olga on her way out to her date. In moments like this you really have to ask in what sense this is a story of abuse. Giving a talented young cellist the solo in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, flying her to New York, and being kind to her throughout your rehearsals may indeed be evidence of infatuation. It is not exactly a crime.

In the invented New York Post article that draws the accusations against Tár out of the whisper network and into the limelight, Tár is accused of “grooming” young musicians. Given that everyone she appears to have harmed is over the age of 18, the use of this term is inaccurate, but not unrealistic given the contemporary climate created by both far-right queerphobes and zealous TikTok age gap policers. It’s clear that those seeking to cancel Tár are unafraid to invoke the age-old depiction of homosexuals as pedophiles. Yet the film itself is ultra-cautious around this issue, a fact pointed out to me by my boyfriend Gray (at least half the thoughts in this post are his). Following their lunch, Olga sends Tár a video of her performing the Elgar with her youth orchestra, which Tár watches alone in a state of rapturous desire. Olga is, as you will recall, 13 in this video—but instead of casting a 13-year-old to play her (and in doing so actually evoking the specter of predatory, pedophilic desire), Field uses Kauer, putting her in a clunky wig that makes her look more like an actor in an amateur Agatha Christie production than a younger version of herself. The effect is bizarre and comically incongruous with the beauty of her musical performance—and with the indication that Tár is falling into an infatuation with her. The casting choice in this scene convinces me that there is a fundamental nervousness undergirding the film’s inability to commit to its own premise. If this is a film about a female/lesbian abuser, then it is one doomed by fear of its own central character.

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