“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Something about the film Tár, directed by Todd Field, makes me think more of the second half of Schopenhauer’s maxim; it makes me want to toy with the highest accolades.
When a work of art is truly original, that originality permeates everything and that’s true here. The title, first of all – with the accent on the ‘a’ – snuck into cinemas with a kind of erudite and confident otherness, hints at a sort of must-see strangeness before the lights have even dimmed.
These impressions continue with the opening credits, which are in fact the closing credits: we see the full list of contributors to the film calmly, patiently described for us and rather than being irritating or tedious, somehow this decision, overturning all the conventions of cinema, projects an intriguing self-confidence.
Perhaps then, this is another thing about genius: not only that it is aiming somewhere we can’t see, but that it knows that’s what it’s doing, but never in too self-satisfied a way – never, that’s to say, into overconfidence.
What ensues is a film of rare beauty. We meet the star conductor Lydia Tár, who is seen first looking anxious in the wings of a stage, before entering the essentially surreal environment of an onstage New Yorker interview conducted by Adam Gopnik. We are therefore rightaway in one of those artificial environments of celebration which the media is so skilled at creating where someone is bolstered, made legendary, construed as ‘great’. It is perhaps the implicit goal of our society to somehow become the protagonist of one of these environments, where we are, by dint of our work, ‘celebrated’. And it is the stated goal of cancel culture to pluck people remorselessly from these positions of apparent safety and irreversible acclaim, to bestow humility on people who to whatever degree appear to have succeeded.
And so we meet Tár, in the spotlit glow of heady achievement. Her achievements seem initially superhuman: she is not just the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the most coveted position in classical music, she is also a composer in her own right.
This opening scene is masterful: we get to know much about Tár, her backstory training under Leonard Bernstein, her attempts to emulate and perhaps surpass him in conducting the cycle of nine Mahler symphonies (reserving the fifth until last), and we get to enjoy her eloquence, her supreme self-confidence, and to guess at the quiddity of her genius, all while feeling it is somehow offkey, that she is being overpraised, overly pandered to, and that the environment is somehow not good for her.
What follows shows the human being behind the personage which the media is creating and bit by bit we get to know Tár without for a moment doubting that she was deserving of something like the approbation which she has achieved.
And we wouldn’t get to know Tár at all were it not for Cate Blanchett whose performance is a thing of genius in itself. It is in this which film reveals itself as a collective art – perhaps the greatest expression of community since the cathedrals were built. To refer to this as Field’s film is to disregard all the other contributions.
Blanchett swims through the refined milieu of classical music, in marvellous baggy suits – dapper and immaculate, but the cuffs free enough to allow her hands the dexterity of swooping down to play a piano. Her character is patiently delineated, and always played with the consciousness of having a huge amount of screen time. But it has a common thread: Tár always prioritises music above people, and what the film shows is that you can’t do this endlessly without ramifications.
In others words, Blanchett’s performance is both solid in terms of establishing Tár but responsive, in that it shows her development. Her character enters over time into difficulty, and as in Shakespearean tragedy these seem to arrive from without (initially without her sensing their existence, let alone how far advanced they are), while having been caused by flaws perpetrated by the character from within. Most of what will afflict Tár is already in motion before the beginning of the film.
Tár’s ‘downfall’ is to do with two sins. Firstly, lust. Without wishing to give anything away, she has a tendency to become besotted by female members of her orchestra. She is married to her first violinist, Sharon Goodnow, played by Nina Hoss, but all her human relationships are secondary to her ego – her relationships are, in the words of Goodnow, ‘transactional’.
It is a terrible indictment, and the penalty is terrible too: it is to discover in the end that all one’s achievements may turn out to be hollow, if we do not set aside the time to nurture human relationships while we carry them out. This mistake is the more easily made because work can be addictive, and once this addiction is ratified by repeated approval, it can become more so.
The film shows us the classical music world as a workplace with unparalleled intricacy. We glimpse the politics of orchestras – the favouritism which can alter the path of a career, positively or negatively. We also see Tár hiring and firing, always eventually to her detriment.
What emerges is a highly moral film. Tár fails to realise that her elevated position was never her sole doing, but contingent on others – more so, on people she feels to be her inferiors. There is no plaudit which comes your way in life without others having cooperate with you. Even a solitary profession like that of a poet or writer requires publishers, public relations people, editors, book designers and a whole raft of people to come in behind the idea of your genius. Very occasionally, somebody – like JD Salinger – decides against these structures, and gets noticed for doing that.
Even more occasionally, someone like Blake gets denied any serious interest during their lifetimes only to be rewarded after their death by a recognition that would have surprised their living selves.
But in general you have to work with people, and to bring them along with you. Shakespeare, to the extent that we can fathom his personality at this distance of time, seems to have been a humble member of the King’s Men, and we probably wouldn’t quote him at all now if he hadn’t. He would still have been a genius, but a genius in a garret, one without shareholder’s certificates.
Finally, this is a film which has surprising things to say about cancel culture. In one scene Tár is seen to dismiss a young student who, for reasons of gender identification, is unable to listen to Bach. Her dismissal of him is quite right as to substance, in that she really does understand Bach better than the student. What is wrong is the manner in which she dismisses him. ‘You’re a bitch,’ says the student as he walks out. We have noted throughout the scene that the student’s leg is shaking; he is nervous, unsure of himself. He did have something to learn but needed to be treated more gently.
Likewise, the finale of the film shows the real end that comes to those who are cancelled. Tár doesn’t do anything too dramatic once her position and her laurels are taken from her. Perhaps she has too much self-regard still for suicide. She also, like Kevin Spacey, has too much money to be seriously destroyed. Instead, she is consigned to a position far beneath her abilities – again like Spacey, her strengths which had once been lauded, now ignored, and the world is the poorer because we can no longer hear Tár’s music, just as we may never know how Spacey, a terrific actor, would have depicted Gore Vidal, a role he was surely born to play.
In some sense then the film, a true work of communitarian art, can’t quite be an individual tragedy, because that wouldn’t describe our times. We are too materialistic, too wealthy, too connected for individual tragedy. That means that tragedy is always felt jointly. This means too that the genius of the film can’t belong solely to Field or Blanchett or any one person. It’s ours. And this is why we love the cinema when it’s this great; it affirms us.