This past weekend, American moviegoers were treated to the wide release of TÁR, the director Todd Field’s first feature film in more than 16 years. To help unpack this complex and divisive study of the (allegedly) fictional conductor Lydia Tár, the BPoFD editorial board has assembled some of the country’s leading film critics to participate in an in-depth exit survey about the movie. The critics’ responses, which have been edited for length, clarity, and sanity, can be found below. Thanks to Vincent, Fatima, William, and Carmen for sharing their thoughts.
The BPoFD TAR EXIT SURVEY SPECTACULAR
Key: Vincent (VS), Carmen (CP), Fatima (FK), William (WG)
What’s your 280-character review of TAR?
VS: A phenomenally gifted director — with Cate Blanchett as his indefatigable muse — offers up a portrait of a woman driven entertainingly mad by the power she’s ruthlessly managed to secure.
CP: 4.72 strawberries.
FK: TAR is a film in which you will feel intensely attracted to Cate Blanchett as Petra’s Papa; when she bullies that little child you’ll have much to work through with your therapist. It makes a powerful argument that everyone should look like David Bowie in a louche suit with a cashmere sweater. [Ed. Note: This response is 294 characters.]
WG: TAR is a contemporary Greek tragedy that is epic in scope, but also highly intimate because it is a true character study, never straying from the point of view of the central character. The film represents the first great work of art made about cancel culture and the effects of the Me Too movement on contemporary society, especially within high culture industries. [Ed. Note: This response is 379 characters.]
Aside from Cate Blanchett’s performance, what were the strongest elements of TAR for you?
VS: I thought it was just stunning to look at, on a very basic cinematographic level. I’m so glad I got to see it in a theater, on a big screen, because it was just beautiful to watch Field’s vision that way. I think the script is terrific, and terrifying. And I was surprised by just how well it built and sustained its narrative momentum; it certainly didn’t feel as if nearly three hours had elapsed when the last shot rolled.
CP: The awesome confidence and control of the filmmaking. Every micro and macro detail feels assured, considered, pored over but never overdetermined or didactic; it’s all contributing to the intricate layering of this character and her insular world. Though the movie is almost three hours long, not a second feels wasted because the screenplay, direction, and acting keep stacking ambiguity on ambiguity without ever once wandering into cheap moralization or lazy vagaries. I was left feeling both grateful and depressed when it was over. The essential disposability of most every movie I watch had been thrown into a very stark relief.
FK: The sublime nature of music; the deliciousness of the closed, collaborative world of an orchestra; the absolute satisfaction of watching somebody or something be excellent; the related idea that there are things (like Bach) whose true excellence is so immediate, inarguable, and rare that time and understanding are no barriers to perceiving it; the charisma that attaches to talent or the idea of it; Brutalist interiors; spaces that feel smoothly polished, wooden and glowing with light like the interior of a musical instrument; the function and creation of self-mythology, a thing which I suspect all great artists must engage in from the time they begin to perceive themselves and the world.
WG: Todd Field’s direction. His two previous films, In the Bedroom and Little Children, have great acting and writing, but he has developed a much more distinct visual vocabulary with TAR. He clearly watched a lot of Kubrick, Haneke, and Fassbinder during his time away from film. I also think the cold production design fits the movie well. It is almost like the film is set in a series of modern-day palaces and forts.
What elements of TAR were less successful for you?
VS: I suppose I might be alone in this, but I’ll say it all the same: Because Cate Blanchett is so fucking great at what she does, there are moments in a film like this where, because she’s so clearly a superior actor and artist, whomever she’s in conversation with in a scene seems to be, somehow, doing it wrong. I felt this most strongly in her scenes with Nina Hoss, whom I don’t think is a subpar actor by any means, but just didn’t seem, to me, to be quite holding her own. I didn’t sense any believable chemistry between them, maybe?
CP: There are a handful of moments in the film that, while they serve necessary functions with regards to narrative or character or world-building, feel somewhat affected or contrived in comparison to the stuff that really lands. I’m thinking of the assistant mouthing the words to Lydia’s introduction at the New Yorker Festival, or the triggered Julliard student’s restless leg syndrome, or the mob of protestors outside of Lydia’s book launch. These are admirable directorial choices in theory, but I’m not convinced they work in practice.
FK: I’m still not sure what to make of some aspects of the film. I think the Juilliard scene still confounds me a little — the set-up is so obviously on Tar’s side, makes us want to snap along, gives her eloquence and space and is so deeply seductive… while the student is reduced to the emptiest mumblings of identity and representation. I agree with Tar, and I wonder if I should be concerned about the extent to which I agree with her, and if I haven’t been manipulated. I’m still confused about who was texting. There are other things I haven’t fully processed yet, like the mother/daughter neighbours and the dog attack.
WG: The movie sometimes wanders into the surreal in a way that I don’t think is necessary or adds anything to the scenes happening in the real world. Lydia Tar wakes up thinking she hears a sound in the night a few too many times. The images she sees in the black void space are not welcome additions to the film for me. The only surreal scene I enjoyed is when Tar finds the ticking metronome in her cabinet. It’s not subtle, but it works.
What is TAR attempting to communicate about so-called “cancel culture”? Does the film present Lydia Tar as a tragic figure, or as an abuser who has been rightfully punished?
VS: Well, that false dichotomy is, I think, precisely what the movie is all about: that it’s possible to be both. Uncomfortable as that may make people.
CP: A big stink has been made about the scene in which Lydia mansplains separating the art and the artist to the triggered BIPOC music student, and for good reason. It’s a compelling exchange, but I think it’s important to note that Lydia is as much a Gen-X stereotype as the student is a Gen-Z stereotype; TAR is a lot more omniscient and objective than it lets on. And it’s objectively brilliant to place a conductor at the center of these aesthetic and ethical debates about cancel culture. I have no idea whether or not Lydia Tar is actually a once-in-a-generation conductor (in fact, the film may suggest the opposite), but I am entirely convinced that she has a genius-level understanding of how financial, political, and sexual power dynamics establish and reinforce the hierarchies within a creative industry. She is both victim and abuser, of course, but what feels novel is how her conducting and composition feel peripheral and secondary to the social artistry, self-mythologization, and brand management that she demonstrates away from her podium.
FK: After seeing the film a second time with my friends Meg and Mark, I asked them this and they said it can be a tragedy and it can be just. I think that Lydia was careless, unfeeling, reckless, and cruel. I think she used her power to hurt young women, to maim them beyond recovery. I think when she fell from grace, mediocrities were eager to step in and claim her place. I think reading art via identity and moral purity brings about the death of art. I think a lot also rests on the fact that the people we see Lydia elevate (like the cellist) are also talented. Then again, was Krista Taylor talented?
WG: First of all, I believe cancel culture is a real thing, so I wouldn’t put it in air quotes. My views of the film are certainly colored by that perspective. Todd Field and the team create a case study that allows the audience to both feel for and condemn Tar, allowing for a moral ambiguity around cancel culture that I think few works of art from the Trump and post-Trump years would dare depict. Smartly, they made Tar a queer woman. If this character has been male, the audience would have wholly condemned him. Field also makes sure the movie shows that Tar is guilty and responsible for her protégé’s suicide, so it is always clear that the wrongdoing was done and this is not a witch hunt. The film also makes us look at all the people/institutions/art forms responsible for giving Tar so much power, so it is very hard to only blame her. If I had to guess, I think the film is more empathetic to Tar than not, but it is very even handed. She is both a tragic figure and an abuser.
Though it plays a peripheral role in the film, what is the function of Lydia’s time spent researching indigenous music in Peru?
VS: I’d have to see it again to answer this question in any meaningful way. It didn’t strike me as notable, I guess.
CP: Well, a cynical reading would suggest that Lydia leverages her studies in indigenous music to forward her self-interests, which reflects the extractor’s mentality that she has had since she was a student. A more generous reading would view Lydia’s time researching indigenous music as a period of relative innocence and purity before her corruption by the classical music rat race, before the careerist ambitions and need for dominance took precedence. Catch me in the right mood and I’d argue these sequences hold the key to unlocking the whole movie.
FK: My friend Meg suggested that that, just as Lydia goes to Thailand in the first step of her PR recovery journey, she may have previously gone to Peru to hide out for a similar reason, or let some other scandal clear, then reemerged looking as though she had done a service to art. I think that’s a really interesting possibility. But Lydia presumably uses the indigenous music of Peru to, at the very least, burnish her CV and her image. If we know anything about her, it’s that she is highly political, or as she might say “highly considered” — we see her plan the cover of the album down to the tiniest detail, then suggest to the photographer on the day they do something “less considered” in the moment as if it never occurred to her. We know that she plotted and planned her way into the Berlin job, a situation that also involved her romantic partnership being a strategic choice to some extent. So everything in her life seems exacting, and why wouldn’t this be the same? A token from an ethnic world that is, for its white bearer, a token.
WG: This is one of the most mysterious elements of the film. I may even consider it one of the less successful ones. A generous view of it is that it shows Tar’s humble origin and suggests her work in Asia at the end of the film might lead to a kind of rebirth. A less generous view is that it is part of a mythology she constructs about herself as a form of self-promotion. A more honest view is that it is probably a little bit of both. I saw the film again yesterday, and I realized that the narration and singing we hear over the opening credits is from that time in Lydia’s life. It is clearly important to the character.
How would you describe TAR’s outlook on marriage and motherhood with respect to the “artist’s life”?
VS: I mean, aside from the wonderful scene in which Tar quietly berates the child who’s been bullying her daughter, the kid is kind of a cipher in the film, secondary by a long distance to Tar’s work as an artist. I don’t think the film has much to say about motherhood. It’s exactly as invested in motherhood as Tar is.
CP: Though she may only get mentioned once, the absence of Lydia’s mother and family in her current life in Berlin does offer some explanation for her imperfect relationship with her partner and their adopted daughter. It’s obviously significant that Lydia dedicates her post-cancelation piano composition to her daughter, and that Lydia is the one to confront her daughter’s bully–sometimes, it pays to have a parent who’s completely insane. Marriage and parenthood seem fraught for Lydia, but I don’t believe that’s because she’s a famous conductor. I think it’s because she is herself.
FK: I haven’t thought about this one enough! [Ed. Note: Maybe ask Meg?]
WG: I don’t know how well I can speak to this question because I’m not married or a mother, but I do think Tar’s relationship with her daughter, Petra, is her most genuine. However, even that is a little sad because Tar constantly performs her high status for her daughter. Petra calls her Lydia and she worships her completely, “You are the most beautiful person I have ever known,” Petra says after Tar’s face is injured in a fall. The most important scene with Petra involves a moment where Tar tries to take her to the park after she’s lost her position and Tar’s wife, Sharon, doesn’t let her. We watch this scene at a distance, from the inside of Tar’s car, but it’s the scene where I felt the most compassion for Tar. She needed to lose her job, but does she really need to lose the kid? Also, I think Sharon does not let Tar speak to Petra not from any real concern for her daughter but more because she wants to preserve her own position within the orchestra. That is one of the film’s more despicable acts.
How are we meant to interpret the ending(s) of TAR?
VS: I really loved the ending, though I can see why some didn’t, too. For me, it was this: on the one hand, yes, her cancellation is so debasing as to see her now conducting for cosplay-lovers in Thailand; on the other hand, it still means something to her, even this pitiful-seeming gig. It matters, what she’s doing — she has to believe it matters, else her whole self will unravel even further, to illegibility and meaninglessness.
CP: Lydia has been cosplaying as a cultured cosmopolitan elite her entire adult life, and now she is finally performing as her true self in front of a room of her fellow cosplayers. I thought the movie was about to end ten different times in the last 30 minutes, and I loved every last one of these suspected non-endings. Lydia’s tackling of her replacement, the Leonard Bernstein VHS, the back-and-forth with her brother, the waterfall, the brothel. It’s a deliberate and drawn out anticlimax, a conclusion that’s likely more truthful to the reality of the artist cast into exile. Sometimes, it feels like a perfectly inevitable end for Lydia. Other times, I wish she had gotten a much grander and dramatic finale. I like that I can’t decide between the two options; it gives me a reason to watch the movie again. May I never make up my mind.
FK: I think both symbolic and literal. The fishbowl of spa girls, the Monster Hunter soundtrack for which she is a guest conductor… sort of just stacks of symbolism that fit into her own narrative structures about the world, as she describes it early on at the New Yorker Festival.
WG: First, I think there is only one ending, and I think it’s the best film ending since “I drink your milkshake!” In that ending, we see both how far Tar has fallen, but we also see green shoots for her. The moment she vomits after being asked to select one of the masseuses/prostitutes shows genuine remorse and regret in a way we have never seen from her. The image of her conducing an orchestra for a LARPing (Live Action Role Play) Convention is degrading, but it shows she is still doing what she loves. She has lost the status she had in Berlin, but in some ways this new role is less elitist and less likely to create a culture of abuse that feeds and grows a Lydia Tar.:
Where does TAR rank among the movies you’ve seen this year?
VS: The best I’ve seen this year so far, though there are many I haven’t seen and still wish to before saying it was my favorite of the year.
CP: For now, above Memoria and below The Northman.
FK: As good as NOPE, which is to say very good.
WG: It’s the best film of the year and the best film of the decade (so far). [Ed. Note: Neither of these incorrect claims reflect the views of BPoFD or its sponsors.]