The Power of TÁR

“I think we need to stop creating space for white men to be a part of this conversation,” S, a white woman, American, in her mid-twenties, commented during a conversation on power structures in a graduate school class on leadership.

As soon as another classmate began to respond, S interrupted: “You know you’re a white man, right?”

As I witnessed this exchange sitting across the room from S, my eyerolls prominent on my masked face, I resisted the urge to spout out the semi-sarcastic comment that had taken form in my head: “As a brown man raised in a postcolonial society, maybe we shouldn’t allow either white men or white women to speak. After all, they’ve all been in power and perpetuated colonialism, racism, and the like. But then if we start considering factors like class, caste, economic status, what even is power? We can participate in these Oppression Olympics forever.”

A few years after this incident in graduate school, I couldn’t suppress a chuckle when I watched the Juilliard scene unfold in Todd Field’s TÁR – the only moment in the movie in which the protagonist feels any need to state her identity as a qualifier. “As a U-Haul lesbian…” she begins mockingly, before eviscerating a student who self-righteously interprets music through the narrow lens of his own identity. On the face of it, TÁR is the story of a gay woman orchestra conductor. We meet her at her peak as one of the most prominent musical figures of our era, and then witness her unravel as her past misdeeds catch up with her. As such, one of movie’s biggest triumphs is upending how we visualize power, extricating us from our preconceptions about its intersection with identity. Instead, Field’s screenplay, bolstered by a masterfully internalized performance by actor Cate Blanchett, wants us to think deeply about the mechanics, the construction – and deconstruction – of power itself.

In the film’s opening shots, journalist Adam Gopnik – playing himself – introduces Lydia Tár, reading out a painstakingly calibrated biography that Lydia’s assistant Francesca can mouth in perfect sync. The biography serves as background music as a montage unfolds displaying Lydia’s carefully constructed façade – she picks out a Claudio Abbado LP image, has a similar suit meticulously tailored for herself, and then replicates Abbado’s pose. All of this in preparation for a photoshoot later in the film where Lydia claims to want to appear “less considered.” But Lydia is obviously very attentive to her public image – from a Wikipedia page as carefully tailored as her suits to her cutting out and stowing away her media coverage. While her go-to insult for people throughout the movie is to call them robots, the truth is that she’s living in a simulation of her own making. With even a name she has given herself – and with Blanchett playing with careful precision a protagonist who is playing a version of herself – this is Tár by Tár.

“You cannot start without me. I start the clock,” she asserts to Gopnik. While she’s in power, Lydia does appear to control the clock. Time is of the essence in how the story is told, with the construction of power much more measured and laborious than its destruction, which whether real or imagined, occurs rapidly as a range of incidents snowball into Lydia’s downfall.

It feels reductive to collapse a film that is as rich in its content as it is resistant to coddle its audience, into definitive interpretations. But core to TÁR’s story is the tension between the solipsism of power and the obliteration of one’s ego as an artiste. At the peak of her powers, Lydia’s role as an artiste has become subservient to her power.

Lydia Tár represents what leadership scholars Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy call a hunger for control and importance. Such hungers, they write, can “disrupt our capacity to act wisely or purposefully.”  In one of the movie’s most poignant scenes, we see Lydia in a room ensconced in her past, watching a VHS of a Leonard Bernstein concert, an old medal around her neck and tears streaming down her face. Time has caught up with her in this moment of reckoning, as her inspiration as an artiste and her hunger for glory sit in visible conflict. Eventually, in her tragicomic reinvention, Lydia ends up conducting a Monster Hunter live action concert for an audience of cosplayers. Far from the elite echelons of classical music, she becomes the artiste who must sublimate herself at the podium as she waits for a screen to lower over the orchestra, and puts on a click track headset that is handed to her, no longer in control of time. 

As much as we should study Lydia’s own personality as she moves from the peak of her power to its nadir, the movie also provides an array of characters and settings to understand how power is created, exhibited, and sustained. Barbara Kellerman, who studies “Bad Leadership,” emphasizes the need to examine the context in which power is exercised, specifically the role of followers. The orchestra represents a hierarchical structure with its conductor so visibly in power: “it’s a clear pyramid, with the fulcrum being the conductor’s podium, so the lines of power are clearly drawn,” Field explained in an interview. Several of Lydia’s followers in this hierarchy, we learn, have failed to question her transgressions, serving instead as enablers and bystanders. As the Assistant Conductor Sebastian Brix points out to her in a moment of rare temerity: “Just because no one dares breathe it, we know the things you do!”

But this rigid hierarchy of the orchestra ceases to exist on both social media and in the Juilliard interaction. Not everyone can have the conductor’s baton, Lydia tells her daughter Petra: “It’s not a democracy.” But outside of this milieu, Lydia – for good and bad – must confront more chatter, more noise. Kellerman cites her own experience as a professor, reflecting on how the gap between her and her students has narrowed over time. She writes, “Changes in culture and technology have added to follower power and detracted from leader power.” Unsurprisingly, it is such moments in the film that depict the greatest challenge to Lydia’s power, with social media outrage (even if manufactured) propelling her downfall.

Implicit in the storytelling is a mirroring between the leader-follower dynamic and the protection Lydia provides her daughter – referring to herself as “Petra’s father,” in her solipsistic interpretation of this relationship. Jean Lipman-Blumen, a professor of leadership, writes, “Our individual psychological needs, drawn from experiences with parents and early caretakers, can leave us vulnerable to toxic leaders.” Followers end up gravitating towards safety and protection, and towards the illusion of being the chosen ones. “Many toxic leaders have used this perilously uplifting belief to prompt the chosen to close ranks, to distance themselves from the Other.” As Lydia reassures her assistant Francesca about a former aggrieved student, “she wasn’t one of us.” For the first part of the movie, Lydia’s wife Sharon and Francesca quietly witnessed Lydia’s misdemeanors, perhaps even enabled them. But as the cracks in her façade emerge, they cease to believe they are either protected or secure in this relationship. Fittingly, Sharon no longer regards Lydia as a legitimate protector of their daughter.

Even as the movie forces its viewer to meditate on these complex questions, some of its criticism reveals a failure to go beyond the protagonist’s identity. Most prominently, Marin Alsop – a lesbian orchestra conductor herself – was offended, and censured the movie as one that should concern all feminists because it depicts a woman conductor as an abuser. Apart from the hubris embodied in this criticism, there’s a failure to understand the movie’s perspective. Indian actress and activist Shabana Azmi has recounted facing similar criticism when she portrayed a female gangster-turned-politician in the 1999 Hindi film Godmother: “A lot of feminists got very angry with me… you’re showing her as a corrupt politician.” Azmi’s response to this criticism turns out to be valid for Alsop as well: “You’re looking at it through the lens of feminism, [but] that’s not where the director is looking at it from.” The intent in Godmother, she added, was to study how the “community becomes a stranglehold on the person” and how caste causes the character to perpetrate violence and injustice. “That’s [the director’s] lens…. You can’t say this doesn’t further [your] particular cause.”

In TÁR’s case, that the movie offers the opportunity to investigate all of these elements is due in large part to how Lydia’s identity deviates from our baseline conceptions of power. Had TÁR been about a white male leader, the conversation would have inevitably revolved around his inherent entitlement. End of story. But while watching this movie, I found myself asking if Lydia Tár was even a predator. Field seems to want the viewer – the liberal, “woke” one, at any rate – to question these accusations and sit with ambiguity. Allegations about Lydia’s past misdemeanors of grooming “multiple young women to engage in sex acts for professional favors,” are presented in an article in the New York Post – “a how-de-do scandal rag,” in her words. This is complemented by a maliciously edited video of her Juilliard engagement, the unedited – purposefully single-shot – version of which the audience has already seen. There’s evidence of promiscuity, of course, but how credible is this narrative of Lydia’s predatory behavior?  In the scene following the Gopnik interview, we see a young woman flirt with Lydia, asking whether she can text her. In a subsequent scene, it is implied that Lydia did see her that night, but nothing in this encounter explicitly suggests the absence of consent. Similarly, we see Lydia ingratiate herself to the new cellist Olga. But even as Olga visits Lydia’s apartment, we don’t see the latter make any untoward move.

All we know for sure is that Lydia wields her power. She’s a schoolyard bully. This is not a movie that provides satisfactory – or any – answers if viewed through an agitprop lens. To that end, characterizing it as either a “cancel culture” or “Me Too” story misapprehends its intent, as does the gripe that Todd Field squandered the opportunity to tell a more inspirational story about a woman’s rise to power. This is ultimately a story that seeks to interrogate the intricacies of the accretion of power. By evading the voyeurism of showing the viewer any of her transgressions, there is an implicit intentionality in focusing on her mental state, her performance of power, and the structures and systems in her personal and professional life that abet her – and those that  eventually bring her down. 



Image: Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in Tár, photo courtesy of Focus Features

Rohan Sandhu
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