We tend to cover a lot of heavy subjects on Common Sense, and this past week, between the midterms and Silicon Valley meltdowns, has been no exception. On Sundays, we try to kick back, catch a movie, and read stories that don’t make us worry about the state of the American Empire. That’s for Monday.
So we're bringing in more culture reporting and criticism—you may have noticed our scary movie round-up for Halloween, or our breakdown of “Bros”—and today I’m excited to publish one of our favorite independent journalists, Freddie deBoer. Freddie, who you might remember from Honestly, writes extensively on media, education, mental health, and film. Here he is on the new movie everyone we know is talking about, Tár.
Todd Field's new, immensely ambitious film Tár begins with a neat trick: it puts the credits at the beginning. Like a film from the golden age of cinema, Tár runs its list of primary contributors upfront. I'm sure the internet is filled with theories about this stylistic choice. Me, I figure that the point is to underline that the film is about artistic creation, not as an abstraction but as an actual, corporeal, human activity. What better way to highlight the fact that art is made by (fallible, unsteady, selfish) humans than to put the humans that made the film first? One way or another, Tár is the first movie I can remember where the catering department is credited before the first line of dialogue.
Tár is the story of Lydia Tár, a brilliant conductor and composer played by a riveting Cate Blanchett. Lydia is celebrated, almost to the point of absurdity—she's got an EGOT, she guest teaches at Juilliard, her tony Berlin apartment is festooned with awards, her upcoming book is called “Tár on Tár.”
The first thing Tár gets right (and this is essential) is capturing the world of elite orchestral music. This is a movie that is very at home with gourmet musical tastes, and I will say up front that you have to have a stomach for a particular artistic world that many people find unbearably pretentious—there is certainly some critique of that culture to be found in the film, but the movie also luxuriates in the complexities of classical music and the people who create it at the highest levels. I frequently wished I knew a little bit more about the ins and outs of symphony orchestras while watching the film. There’s a lot of talk about adagios and Mahler.
But Tár is ultimately a kind of cancellation story, a #MeToo tale. Lydia stands accused of misconduct—misconduct, namely sexual grooming, that is gradually revealed to us in bits and pieces as we settle into her life.
Lydia has, at times, been in the position to mentor younger people, such as in the previously mentioned classes at Juilliard—during a guest lecture she reams a self-proclaimed “BIPOC pangender” student who refuses to play Bach, given that he was a misogynist and a dead white guy—and as she is an immensely celebrated artiste in the chosen profession of these people, she holds power over them.
The questions Tár poses is, one, whether she's guilty of abusing that position, and two, whether her obvious artistic genius complicates the question of her guilt.
It's here that the desire to avoid spoilers constrains me. What I will say is that the film's real triumph lies in its utterly dispassionate gaze, its bone-deep neutrality towards what it's depicting. The most deft choice Field has made is to render Lydia both beguiling and guilty. There are both frivolous and serious accusations against the titular character in this film, and it's momentarily unsure which will make the bigger difference. This uncertainty is existential. If the film were not willing to make Tár charismatic, it would be soulless; if it were not willing to make her guilty, it would be gutless.
I have seen this film represented as a pro-MeToo tale, and I’ve seen it dinged for failing to underline more explicitly Lydia’s guilt. At no point does Blanchett deliver a powerful speech, exposing her cancellation as an injustice; at the same time, while Lydia receives a stern comeuppance, it’s also an absurd one, which prevents the story from feeling like a pat tale of crime and punishment.
Complaints about Tár’s ambiguities misunderstand what makes the film so powerful: Its almost documentary tone, its insistence on keeping the story at arm’s length and dramatizing without lecturing, helps capture the strange moment we find ourselves in regarding MeToo. Many have suggested that the movement has run out of steam, and the Johnny Depp trial was represented at the time as a sign of brewing backlash. Stories like that of Aziz Ansari, whose attempted cancellation sparked fierce public debate about whether it was deserved, introduced a dose of uncertainty into what had been a simple narrative of good and evil. I say all of this as, more or less, a defender of MeToo’s goals and many of its outcomes. Ultimately, the chilly refusal to arrive at a pat conclusion makes Tár the movie it is. Field seems almost to be saying, “I’m not going to just hand you the conclusions; I tell the story, only you can judge.”
Less effective, for me, are some of the incidental choices. The trailer goes hard on the fact that Lydia is hearing phantom sounds, noises that appear to have no source. Early descriptions of the movie suggested it was almost a horror film, but I myself just don’t see it. Tár’s auditory hallucinations are indeed an element of the movie, but not one that's particularly... meaningful? Important? I personally would have dropped this dynamic; it adds very little to the story, in large measure because the movie can't seem to decide whether it really wants to go through with it. The character of Lydia's assistant is also utilized oddly—she becomes central to the plot machinations, but is shoved offscreen about halfway through the movie and never seen again. It left me feeling somewhat unmoored, especially given how important certain actions of hers will prove.
Ultimately, this is Blanchett's movie. I personally found her performance energizing, but also alienating, never letting the audience fully in. Lydia never asks to be liked - indeed, she seems utterly indifferent to affection - but can never be dismissed. It's as if Blanchett were holding the camera at arm's length, pushing the audience away, in order to better inhabit a character who demands attention but not popularity. The movie has been represented in some circles as a cancel culture fable, not incorrectly, but Tár refuses to advance any tidy conclusions about that phenomenon. If you can live with that, you'll find Tár transporting.
Freddie deBoer’s first book, The Cult of Smart, was published in 2020. You can subscribe to his daily newsletter here.