On the day I finally got around to watching Tár, Alpha Classics released a new collection of chamber music performed by virtuoso violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya and composer-pianist Fazil Say. The collection—which includes works by Janácek, Brahms, and Bartók—was on my radar due not only to my love for Brahms’s violin sonata in D minor, Op. 108, but to my recent interest in Kopatchinskaya, whose passionate playing style first captivated me when YouTube recommended her 2014 performance of Stravinsky’s violin concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Her playing has since enlivened concertos by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, sonatas by Ravel and Poulenc, and new works by living composers of international renown. Her work with Say on the Brahms sonata is of course no disappointment, lending an air of foreboding to the allegro movement that’s missing from the Renaud Capuçon–Nicholas Angelich rendition that turned me on to the piece in the first place.
Question: Do you give a hot shit about any of this? Do I sound like a pretentious dipwad for assuming that you would give a hot shit about this? If your answers are “no” and “yes,” respectively, then I urge you to sprint in the opposite direction of Tár, the ponderous and self-satisfied tale of an orchestra conductor who abuses both her power and her many prótegés. In fact, even if you answered “kind of” and “only a little,” it’s likely that your interest in this movie will hinge less on your cinematic tastes than on whether or not you take an excessive amount of pride in recognizing terms like rubato and names like Gustav Mahler. If you do, great. But for all others, Tár is like its subject: stubborn, evasive, narcissistic.
The story is by now familiar enough: A powerful figure—in this case world-famous orchestra conductor Lydia Tár—coerces her less powerful subjects into sexual submission with vague promises of future greatness, and anyone who doesn’t submit will never eat lunch in this town again. It’s a tale that’s been told well in the past and will be told well again. The problem with Tár is that writer/director/sergeant-at-arms Todd Field seems to have no trust in his material. His previous film, 2006’s Little Children, relied heavily on narration yanked straight from the pages of the novel it was based on, often telling what it could have been showing. With Tár, the story is his own, so he has nowhere to hide. And yet that’s just what he attempts to do, behind conversations thick with impressive-sounding vocabulary, behind inside jokes and encyclopedia entries.
Listen, I get it: It’s fun to watch movies and recognize stuff. A movie like Midnight in Paris is plenty of fun on its own, but it’s even more fun if you were a lit major in college and now find yourself wanting for opportunities to use all the trivia left over from that time. You can point at the screen and nudge your date and say, “Ooh, he just dropped a line from Prufrock!”
So it is with Tár: If you listen to WRTI for any purpose other than as background music for doing data entry, you can take delight in hearing our protagonist compare herself with other well-known women conductors and wonder aloud to your disinterested companion if she’ll mention Nathalie Stutzmann, the principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Spoilers: she does.) Of course, you may have to nudge your companion a second time, because even though this scene occurs only a few minutes into the movie, they will probably be asleep.
It is not a sin for a movie to show off its research. Historical epics indulge in it; war movies live and die by it; biopics make a fetish of it. But it’s one thing to use industry jargon and inside baseball as a proscenium to support your play, and quite another to weave it into a thick, red curtain that never rises, obscuring everything else.
In addition to dazzling us with its expansive glossary, Tár would like us to marvel at the old world of customs and traditions bristling against the new world of touchiness and tech. Leading a workshop at Julliard, Lydia asks a young student to play some Bach. The student refuses on the grounds that Bach, like more than a few canonized white men of history, has a closetful of problematic skeletons. Lydia counters that listing the transgressions of famous men is no excuse for refusing to engage with their work. She doesn’t deny Bach’s bad actions, but neither does she accept the newfangled notion that such behavior—indeed, any behavior—ought to erase him and his legendary output from the canon.
We’ve all been stuck in some version of this conversation at one point or another. And though it’s been done to death, many of us still manage to hold passionate opinions on the topic, especially those of us who care deeply about art. Sadly, in Tár, the Bach debate devolves into a tired screed against identity politics and social media, and the topic is never revisited in a substantial way. The conversation exists merely to establish Lydia Tár as a representative of a particular point of view.
Which would be fine, if this movie wasn’t about art. Being embedded in the world of classical music provides the movie ample opportunity to confront difficult questions about what we hold sacred and put our characters’ beliefs to the test. Instead, Tár pivots to the broader (and admittedly more urgent) issue of powerful people abusing the naïve, vulnerable fledglings whose future is subject to their power. A worthwhile topic of course, but such a movie could be made about virtually any industry. Plenty of music is heard in Tár, and many, many conversations are had about it, but after a while, we begin to wonder why we’re here as opposed to somewhere else.
Opportunities for music to involve itself in the action arise and are quickly squandered. When the guilt of what she’s done begins to creep up on Lydia, she begins hearing things. Not music, though; just iPhone alerts and rogue metronomes and refrigerator hums. Real music—you know, the stuff that’s supposed to produce emotions and heighten tensions—is relegated to mere decoration.
We’re told, for instance, that Lydia often commissions new works by living composers, and that she spent time in the Amazon region studying indigenous music. But none of this music is ever heard or indeed referred to after the opening scene. Instead, we get in-jokes about the classical canon designed to produce closed-lipped chuckles from season ticket holders, like the last clanging bars of Shostakovich’s Fifth employed as an alarm clock. (Points for recognizing the initials “MTT”; double points for knowing the origin of the line “Your business is rejoicing.”)
The same Oscar cycle that pushed Tár onto so many radars also yielded She Said, about the reporters who took down Harvey Weinstein and in the process exposed the world of open-secret sexual abuse bubbling under the polished veneer of Hollywood. We have had films and docuseries dedicated to plumbing the depths of sexually abusive power in cults, the Catholic church, government, and schools. All Tár seems to be adding is, See, this happens in the concert hall, too, or, See, women can be abusers, too.
Who is this movie for? If it’s for a general audience, why is it bogged down with so much jargon as to require not only subtitles but footnotes? If it’s for classical music buffs, why is the music merely incidental to the story? And if it’s for everyone, what is it adding to the conversation about abuses of power that’s been blaring out of every other podcast feed for the better part of a decade?
It’s certainly not a movie’s responsibility to “add to the conversation.” That reduces art to the role of a tepid thinkpiece. But then why does Tár spend so many of its 158 minutes on tedious conversations about Bach and social media and Jacqueline du Pré and YouTube? Reviews have been rife with buzzwords like cancel culture and #metoo, and while both director and star have insisted that these “hot button issues” are merely plot devices, such evasions don’t hold up to scrutiny. Without the infrastructure of public shaming and the window-dressing of Mahler and Elgar, what are we left with? A handful of shocking scenes on the way to Lydia’s undoing, delivered without much in the way of suspense or tension leading up to them.
If it’s possible to overdose on subtlety, Tár needs an adrenaline needle to the breastplate. Its emotional core is so deep beneath the surface you need a metal detector to find it, even in scenes of apparent reckoning. We do not get to witness the deeds that incriminate Lydia or the emotional tolls they take on her victims. Aside from some clips for the Oscar reel, it’s all emails and viral videos and switching back and forth between German and English at the podium. The time spent having difficult conversations and confronting scary truths is minor compared to the time spent ping-ponging between major cities and discussing bowing techniques.
I like classical music. You can go to a concert and still get to bed at a reasonable hour. The crowds aren’t noisy and they aren’t (that) drunk, and the show always starts on time. The human voice plays only an occasional, non-starring role—a real treat in an age of opinions delivered with maximum volume and minimum brains. I don’t mind being a pretentious dipwad; that ship sailed when I taught my first creative writing class in a black turtleneck and corduroy blazer. But the assumption behind the epithet “pretentious” is that the person accused of indulging in pretense has nothing under the hood. They like to appear smart and sophisticated and deep, but really they’re full of shit. Is that me? Maybe. But it’s also Tár.
Tár premiered in theaters October 7, 2022, and on streaming platforms November 15, 2022.