The Limits of Control: Lines of Power in Todd Field's "Tár"

The conductor's behavior as a teacher is more damning than the viral video that leads to her downfall.
Helen Charman

Tár, the third film from writer and director Todd Field, is a fictional biopic structured like a Greek tragedy: here we have a character of prestigious rank and fortune, brought down by something within themselves. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic with an almost impossibly illustrious career behind her, has knowingly committed harmful acts—she is a sexual predator and has abused her position of influence—and her downfall, painful to watch, is precipitated by a growing recklessness, a refusal to heed the warnings the audience can clearly interpret as signs of a coming storm. When the extent of her misconduct is revealed, Tár’s punishment is swift: she can’t see her wife or child, she loses her job, she loses her luxurious home(s), and she loses her status. 

The film has, for obvious if frustrating reasons, been primarily received as a psychodrama about “cancel culture” or “the culture wars.” Most of these analyses rest upon a pivotal scene in which Tár teaches a “master class” at the prestigious Juilliard School. During the class, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a student who has chosen to conduct an atonal contemporary piece by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, is brutally humiliated by the conductor; she accuses them of being too shallow to understand “great” music: “the architect of your soul appears to be social media.” Identity politics, extremely crudely formulated, is at the heart of the conflict: Max tells Tár that Johann Sebastian Bach’s misogyny prevents them, as a “BIPOC pangender person,” from fully engaging with his work. Shortly after this, Max storms out. 

I enjoyed watching Tár, but I couldn’t work out what I thought about it, and this scene was the crux of my discomfort. I discussed it with the friend I’d gone to the cinema with—we both work in higher education—and I discussed it the next day with a colleague at the university where I teach. Like a good student, I did my homework, reading everything I could find. The pieces I found particularly interesting—I wanted to make notes in the margins—were written by Tavi Gevinson and Richard Brody, both in the New Yorker, and by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books. For Gevinson, Tár is notable for its “gestural treatment of abuse”: the details of the accusations against the conductor are not included, echoing, for her, the limitations of the processes by which victims can seek “justice,” which often rely on personal exposure or the silencing mechanisms of nondisclosure agreements. For Brody, this erasure of specifics is precisely the problem; he reads Tár as “a regressive film that takes bitter aim at so-called cancel culture and lampoons so-called identity politics,” presenting the conductor as a victim. For Smith, the film provides an opportunity to ponder generational divides, a favored theme of hers in recent years. She draws an un-nuanced line between millennials, who “we can just about conceive of” inventing, as Tár does, “a mugging for the purposes of pity” (who is “we”?), and Gen-Z-ers like Max who “grew up online,” and thus take a particularly hubristic, puritanical pleasure in cancellation.

Such readings skate over what is, for me, the central flaw in the Juilliard plot: it just wouldn’t have happened like that. Leaving aside the fact that Max is little more than a cardboard cutout of a “sensitive student,” intended as nothing more than collateral damage, the pivotal role played by the class in Tár’s public ruination occurs when an obviously doctored video of it is released. Her conduct as a teacher, which on its own would have been more than enough to cause outrage, becomes beside the point, and the grievances her students are more than justified in having are replaced by malicious virtual falsification. (Something similar happens in the recent Netflix series The Chair, in which a renegade English lecturer played by Jay Duplass faces disciplinary action after a context-free video circulates online of him giving a Nazi salute during a class on fascism and absurdism.) Students, in such representations, become an amorphous group, defined only by their perceived generational characteristics. Yet students as a group, composed of individuals of different backgrounds, ages, and opinions (though admittedly, in institutions like Juilliard, this diversity is mitigated by economic and social barriers to enrollment), are united primarily, and sometimes solely, by their shared position in the classroom, and its relationship to the way pedagogical hierarchy is utilized by the teacher—the “master”—leading the class. This is the only scene in which the audience actually witnesses Tár abuse her power: her incidents of sexual misconduct are implied, but the pleasure she takes in belittling Max is painfully apparent. It is as if she understands herself to be the underdog, taking these generational upstarts down a necessary peg or two, rather than a famous conductor so intent on mortifying a student that she ends up driving them from the room.  

The Juilliard plot, then, misses the mark, and in doing so it destabilizes the other, much more astute analyses of power that Field’s film performs. Lydia Tár is not a teacher by profession, and her academic credentials rely on some ethnographic fieldwork in the Amazon. This location appears only in dream sequences, which Luna Beller-Tadiar diagnoses in Another Gaze as evidence of “the colonial imaginary”: it’s clear this research was a stepping stone to grander, whiter things. Still, her ascent to the upper echelons of classical music has relied, to an extent, on pedagogy, or at least didacticism. Her forthcoming book, Tár on Tár, lays out her teachings, and she is the co-founder of the Accordion Conducting Fellowship program, intended to train and “empower” young female conductors. It is in this position that her most egregious abuses of power have occurred: a pattern emerges of a woman who enters into sexual relationships with her charges and then discards them, most obviously in her blacklisting of Krista, a former fellow whose death by suicide shapes the action of the film, and in her poor treatment of her current protégé, Francesca (Noémie Merlant). 

In conversation with the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman, Field described his decision to begin the film with the credits as representative of the “pyramid of power”: “The lines of power really interest me: Who enables it, and what benefit do they get from it? And when is it no longer a benefit?” Speaking to Rico Gagliano on the MUBI Podcast, Field characterized Lydia’s partner, Sharon—the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic—as her primary enabler; German orchestras are self-governing, but Sharon’s complicity with her wife allows her to refute the idea that the orchestra is “a democracy.” In order to get what she wants from younger women in subordinate positions, Lydia utilizes the rhetoric of empowerment, collectivity, and growth, framing manipulation as mentorship and tyranny as pedagogy. (In the Schulman interview, Field, when asked if his own position was as powerful, and as potentially corruptible as Tár’s, he replied that, as a “panicked parent,” working “seven days a week,” “I don’t feel like I have any power at all.” People who have it rarely do.)

Tár’s obsession with power is expressed in the film as a need for absolute control. In the opening scene, a staged interview with Adam Gopnik, she declares herself to be in control of time itself: “You cannot start without me. I start the clock.” As the film progresses and her position becomes more precarious, her misophonia increases, and we see her haunted by sounds both real and imaginary: sirens, screams, and the incessant pinging of a neighbor’s medical device, a metronome that she did not start. In the scene at Juilliard, however, she suggests the opposite. After telling Max that social media is the architect of their soul, she positions this alleged hyper-vigilance against the discombobulating release of true artistic interpretation: “You want to dance the masque, you must service the composer.” In order to do this successfully, she continues, you must “stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.” At this point in the film, we have never seen Tár “obliterate” herself, although we have seen her use the power vested in her own particular self to obliterate others. Her fetishization of artistic annihilation begins to feel like willful self-delusion, a contained, meticulous fantasy of losing control.  

Later, however, we realize that she has performed one crucial act of self-erasure. After the bomb she placed under her own life has been detonated, she returns to her childhood home in Staten Island to pick up the pieces; her brother (Lee R. Sellars), little more than a cliché, observes, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” From the achievement certificates still mounted proudly on the wall, we can see where she came from: Lydia Tár used to be Linda Tarr, and her much fêted “mentorship” from Leonard Bernstein turns out to have occurred via VHS tapes of his Young People’s Concert television series. It’s through these videos—intended to democratize classical music through education—that we glimpse a different path for Lydia: Field told Variety’s Kate Aurthur that Bernstein “was a genuine figure in her childhood imagination, a very real person for her in a non-cynical way, in a non-opportunistic way.”

Lydia/Linda’s destructive self-creation relies upon the fantasy of the individual self-supporting genius, but it was sparked by a cultural product—however kitschy, embarrassing and didactic it might have seemed—which had the intention of fostering a more collaborative musical life. Sure, Bernstein, every inch the benevolent maestro, is very far from any restructuring of the hierarchy of either pedagogy or classical music, but there is no cruelty, no humiliation here. The excerpt we see Lydia watching is from the episode “What Does Music Mean?”, which begins with Bernstein talking about the Lone Ranger to an audience of audibly excited children. “There’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have,” says Bernstein, a good teacher, letting possibility in. 

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