Harald Krichel, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Tár and Feathers

Since its premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival last September, the classical music fraternity has been buzzing over ‘Tár’, the 2022 psychological drama film written and directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchett in the eponymous role as a tyrannical conductor at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, no less, and her spectacular nose-dive from grace.

The many classical music social media platforms and mailing lists I am privy to have had so much to say, and the views were quite polarized. Some of my friends and colleagues gushed and raved about it. Indeed, the film has been described by some critics as “one of the best films of 2022.” It was listed on the American Film Institute’s top 10 films of the year, and was named best film by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics, becoming the seventh film in history to win top honours from the critics’ trifecta. It was also named the best film of 2022 by Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and IndieWire’s annual poll of 165 critics worldwide.

But I was also amazed by the vehemence with which those who disliked the film expressed their displeasure and indeed outrage.

Marin Alsop, the female conductor name-checked by Blanchett in the film slammed it, saying it offended her “as a woman… as a conductor…as a lesbian.”

Lydia Tár has many similarities to Alsop: both are path-breaking, award-winning women conductors leading the world’s major orchestras (Alsop until recently headed the Baltimore Symphony); both are the legendary late American conductor and pedagogue Leonard Bernstein protégées, both are lesbians, both are married to orchestral musicians (with whom they have children). So when the film added sexual misconduct and predatory behaviour as well to the toxic mix of Tár’s persona, Alsop was understandably upset.

“To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking, I think all women and all feminists should be bothered by that kind of depiction because it’s not really about women conductors, is it? It’s about women as leaders in our society. People ask, ‘Can we trust them? Can they function in that role?’ It’s the same questions whether it’s about a CEO or an NBA coach or the head of a police department.

Blanchett responded to Alsop (whom she acknowledged as “a trailblazer of a musician and a conductor”) by saying Tár was about power and not gender. “It’s a meditation on power and power is genderless.”

There seemed to be no middle road among those who watched the film; they either loved it or hated it.

All this discussion only whetted my curiosity even more, and I finally had a chance to see the film for myself only recently.

I’ll try not to give away too much, so as not to spoil for those of you who haven’t seen ‘Tár’ yet. There are many aspects of the film that don’t quite ring true to me. The beginning of the film with the end credits was a little jarring, although it would help if the viewer knew from the outset that the on-screen version of the Berlin Philharmonic was actually the Dresden Philharmonic and not a studio orchestra. (I had already gleaned that from having read so much about the film in advance). The ending seemed rushed to me, as if the scriptwriters ran out of gas and had to race against time just to get to the finish line.

But I still think it deserves to be seen, as it certainly gives you much to think about.

I’m don’t quite agree with Blanchett that ‘Tár’ is not about gender, although I do take on board that she didn’t think one “could have talked about the corrupting nature of power in as nuanced a way as Todd Field has done as a filmmaker if there was a male at the center of it because we understand so absolutely what that looks like.” However, the “female-ness” of Tár cannot be ignored, and one can’t help feeling that her house of cards came crashing down a lot quicker precisely because of her gender.

Alsop’s point that this is some ways was a wasted opportunity is quite valid. As a film depicting a woman at the very zenith of the classical world (being principal conductor of the Berlin Phil; it doesn’t get any higher than that!), a positive portrayal would have been welcome. One hopes that there will be one in the not-too-distant future.

What no-one has commented upon (yet) is that after the fall from her pedestal, when Tár has become a pariah in the Western world on both sides of the Atlantic, her ultimate “disgrace” is signaled by having to conduct an obscure orchestra in Asia (I later learned it was the Philippines). It reminded one (as if one needed reminding) that the Western world largely views much of Asia (and Africa; read non-white) as on the fringes of the Western classical music world, if not outside it entirely. There are many countries (notably Japan, Singapore, Malaysia) that give the lie to this impression, and it is hoped that India will soon join those ranks, and not just in Mumbai.

The high point of the film is, of course, the music. The rehearsal scenes in preparation for a live recording of Gustav Mahler’s towering Fifth Symphony, took me back to 2012 when I was privileged to be able to sit in at rehearsals (and later the performance) of the same work by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of British conductor Daniel Harding at the fabulous Walt Disney Hall.

Presenting as it does a “life crisis in the abstract”, the Mahler symphony becomes a musical mirror to Tár’s own unraveling life.

There has been much criticism of Blanchett’s stick technique in ‘Tár’ and I found her baton movements a tad too sweeping as well. But this is cinema, and I took it in my stride as the vocabulary of artistic license, the grand gestures of a larger-than-life on-screen presence.

After watching the film, and digesting the furious debate it has engendered (pardon the pun), I came away with the feeling that the film-makers, in creating  Tár’s character, and laying out the storyline the way they did, are not necessarily saying those are their own points of view. To me the crucial thing is that so much discussion has begun on so many issues.

What constitutes “great” music, for example? Or where do we stand on ‘cancel culture’? “Cancel culture” is the growing trend today to ostracise, boycott or shun public figures that are deemed to have acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner. Should the same rigorous yardstick used for politicians also be applied to the arts? If not, why not? Should one judge the past with more leniency than the present, on the excuse that “their actions were a reflection of the thinking of their time”? These are questions to which each of us will have a different answer.

This article first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa, India.