How can one discern the immoral actions of an artist with their creations? At the center of Todd Field’s “Tár” (2022) is the question of separating the art from the artist. The film’s story follows the downfall of fictional conductor Lydia Tár, depicted in a masterful performance by Cate Blanchett, that transforms a movie presumably about classical music into an intense psychological drama. Set in a contemporaneous, post-lockdown world, the film makes narrative use of cancel culture to examine this question. Although this topic’s inclusion may sound like a cheap tactic that would result in a haphazard critique of social media and the shaming of victims who come forth against their abusers, “Tár”’s directing, acting and storyline all enable the notion of digital cancel culture to be executed as part of a nuanced mediation on artistry, power and moral consequence.
Taking the loose form of a biopic, “Tár” immediately throws the viewer into the classical music world, potentially scaring off the uninitiated through its terminology. The film is plain in style, placing characters into sterile environments that are matched by restrained editing. Field’s work opens with a jargon-laced interview of Tár highlighting her varied musical achievements. The main character’s accomplishments are diverse and impressive: She is a graduate of the Curtis Institute, a pupil of Leonard Bernstein and has conducted the “Big Five,” currently working towards a performance of Gustav Mahler’s famed “Symphony No. 5.” She is an innovator and generational talent who has secured her place as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, her career trajectory headed decidedly upwards. Field continues this barrage of musical trivia, referencing names like Max Bruch, Herbert von Karajan and Glenn Gould with rapidity. However, the introduction retains viewers through the incorporation of elements familiar to the digital age; references to online terminology like “UHaul lesbians,” and scattered use of Google, YouTube and Twitter move the story. This seemingly clashes with the archaic musical setting, being the centuries-old development of classical performance. These worlds collide in a lecture hall confrontation between Tár and her student over Bach’s misogyny and the white, cisgender male-dominated history of classical composition. They disagree over separating the art from the artist; the student is ridiculed by Tár for not taking interest in Bach and utilizing their personal identity as justification. She asserts to the hall that they must look past identity to examine art (Tár herself is a lesbian), with the student ultimately calling her a bitch and storming out. The introduction of this question is later mirrored by Tár’s own downfall, reintroducing the notion of cancel culture in relation to her eventual demise as a leading figure within the classical world.
Tár’s past is slowly revealed, an ominous beginning of the end. Conversations with her personal assistant Francesca and emails sent to Tár point at a now-soured relationship with a woman named Krista Taylor, a fellow of Tár’s foundation aimed at uplifting female conductors. Demonstrating her careerist striving for power, Tár’s genius and success begin to grow ethically concerning to the viewer. Tár orders Francesca to scrub the emails with Krista; we later see Tár delete a number of correspondences blacklisting Krista from opportunities with major symphony orchestras, wielding her power against Krista’s goals. Tár’s behavior grows increasingly paranoid as she is haunted by a two note motif heard in her home, dreams and ambulance sirens. Her focus, however, remains tied to the performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In a breathtaking transition, we see Tár playing the motif on her home piano before moving into the symphony’s opening “Trauermarsch,” smoothly jumping to her conducting the orchestra rehearsing this fanfare.
The downward spiral is catalyzed by the arrival of Olga, an attractive cellist. Tár schedules a cello concerto as the companion piece to the symphony, and Olga wins the spot through blind auditions, with Tár’s infatuation becoming obvious to her wife, Sharon. Krista’s suicide then marks a sharp turn in Tár’s career. Francesca is instructed to delete all emails involving Krista while Tár prepares legally by retaining a lawyer, attempting to insulate herself from her past. Accusations arrive through the New York Post, labeling Tár as a groomer who took advantage of aspiring composers in her Accordion Foundation. The audience is positioned to see these allegations as hinting at a wider pattern of predatory behavior mirroring the events leading to Kristna’s death and her favoritism with Olga. A deposition for the lawsuit of Krista’s parents hint at Francesca sharing the email correspondences with plaintiffs, and the Kaplan Foundation severs its ties with funding Accordion. Tár remains haunted by dreams and sound, with the two note motif once again appearing in the form of an elderly neighbor’s medical-alert device. Although one may read her reaction as emotional guilt over her past actions, Tár’s palpable fear is most certainly tied to the impact of controversy on her professional career.
Sharon grows outraged over Tár’s non-communication over the allegations, forbidding her from seeing their daughter. She claims that all of Tár’s relationships are transactional, maintained to enable her pursuit of power and dominance over others. As her life tumbles out of control, Tár’s behavior grows increasingly crazed, culminating in tackling her foundation’s financier on-stage during the concert performance of Mahler’s Fifth. Blanchett’s facial expression is intensely desperate, portraying someone full of rage and on the verge of losing everything. Ousted from the classical world, Tár is shown tearfully watching a Bernstein tape discussing the power of music. She later finds work in the Philippines, her character arc culminating in a darkly humorous ending where she conducts a youth orchestra performing a score to an audience of “Monster Hunter” cosplayers. Tár is not legally punished, and Field purposely withholds a decisive confirmation of the accusations, leading the audience to wonder if justice has been served. However, the email chains regarding Krista and her relation to Olga essentially verify her abusive behavior. Tár is not positioned as a “victim” of cancel culture but rather someone who takes the fall due to her immoral past, carrying these consequences with her to the Philippines. Cancel culture is utilized narratively, but it is not the directorial focus of Field. Rather, the film is more broadly aimed at a critique of power, which had been wielded by Tár to control others and secure career aspirations. We are reminded again of Tár’s confrontation with the student: Are they now validated by Tár’s moral failings? Can we separate her genius from accusations? The narrative reintroduction of this question looms over Tár’s downfall, concluding a decidedly modern examination of authority within the world of music.