In his 2019 book, The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray puts his finger on a strange feature of how today’s intelligentsia talk about gender equality. They assert not only that women are just as capable as men of being leaders in an advanced industrial society—a point few would dispute—but also that women possess a special ability to avoid the frailties to which male leaders, past and present, have proved so susceptible. In other words, women are expected to perform not just equally to men, but ever-so-slightly better.
This presumed female superiority manifests in two fashionable assumptions. The first, more frequently asserted in public than the second, is that we would all be better off if more women (exhibiting stereotyped feminine traits like teamwork, social intelligence, and generosity) and fewer men (exhibiting stereotyped male traits like individualism, vanity, greed, and aggressiveness) held leadership roles in society. People most frequently make this assumption when things go wrong in male-dominated fields. To take one example, consider Christine Lagarde, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who wrote of the 2008 financial crisis: “If it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today.”
The second assumption, more frequently acted out than stated, is that women with power are less likely to abuse it than men. This is what leads many people (including even other women) to treat those who accuse powerful women of abuses with skepticism, even as they treat those who accuse men with credulity and sympathy.
Consider the sexual harassment investigation of New York University philosophy professor Avital Ronell in 2017. After a graduate student accused her of sexual harassment at the height of the #MeToo movement, Ronell got a boost from an unlikely source: an open letter from a group of feminist academics that included the preeminent gender theorist Judith Butler. The letter-writers praised Ronell for her “grace” and “keen wit” and asked that she “be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.”
In that sentiment, as in so many other cases, lies a subtext of doubt that women are capable of abusing power. Jennifer Berdahl, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, makes this doubt explicit: “It’s possible there’s a rare woman who might get off on dominating a person . . . but men are socialized from the age of 3 to think of themselves as being ‘a real man,’ defined as dominating women.”
Most people today would scoff at such a statement. We know very well that men and women have the potential to be great leaders, and that both are susceptible to the corruption that power brings. In elite society, however, statements that challenge the two assumptions tend to invite ridicule and even cancellation, so few mass-market films or theatrical works take the chance. This year, one has. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any recent work of art or literature that has challenged these two assumptions more thoroughly and thoughtfully than the psychological thriller Tár, directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett plays the eponymous (and fictional) Lydia Tár, a woman at the top of the orchestra-conducting profession by every conceivable measure. A female maestro (she prefers the traditional male honorific to “maestra”) in a field once dominated by men, Lydia has held positions with the Cleveland Orchestra and Boston Symphony before rising to helm both the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic. At the start of the film, she is preparing a trip to Berlin to record the final installment of her complete Mahler symphony cycle for the Deutsche Grammophon record label.
The magnitude of Lydia’s success and the breadth of her name recognition would seem to put her more in the company of the legendary male maestri of yore—Herbert von Karajan, Eugene Ormandy, or Claudio Abbado—than today’s top maestri, male or female. Likewise, her role as a public intellectual (the first scene features the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik interviewing her onstage in advance of the launch of her book, Tár on Tár) evokes the memory of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Like Lydia, Bernstein was a brilliant communicator and polymathic mind with a bit of an unhealthy tendency to believe his own hype.
But if Lydia’s resume feels like a throwback, the figure she cuts is au courant. Blanchett’s Tár is not so much a person as a brand. Her image is expertly curated by a team of publicity agents and handlers. She has a wife, Sharon, and a young daughter, Petra. She wears custom-tailored suits and circulates from one high society gathering to the next. Like any proper woman or man of letters in the 2020s, she invests much of her time in philanthropic ventures—most notably a fellowship program for mentoring young female conductors. (This “Accordion Fellowship” program, which proves the catalyst for Lydia’s spectacular unravelling over the course of the film, was likely inspired by the Taki Alsop Fellowship, a similar real-world program founded by former Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop.)
Equal parts old-time maestro, cult heroine, and badass girl boss, Lydia Tár would be the perfect heroine for 2022—except for one problem. She not only talks like an old-time maestro; she sins like one, too.
In the film’s early stages, we catch wind of Lydia’s improprieties only through innuendo. After her interview with Gopnik, she holds the gaze of an adoring young female fan just a moment too long. We learn that Lydia has an unusually close relationship with her personal assistant, a young Accordion Fellow named Francesca, who seems somewhat put off when Lydia asks her to leave her alone in her Carlyle Hotel room to practice. We also hear about another Accordion conductor named Krista, who has been removed from the fellowship program under unclear circumstances. Krista is struggling both emotionally and professionally and is sending Francesca increasingly frantic emails.
As the film progresses, it is strongly implied (though Lydia never admits it) that she and Krista previously had an intimate relationship. When that relationship ended, Krista found herself expelled from the fellowship program, rendered persona non grata with former classmates and major Accordion donors, and blackballed from conducting jobs at orchestras around the world. Midway through the film, things get more serious when a tearful Francesca informs Lydia that Krista has killed herself. Fearing a future investigation, Lydia deletes all her email correspondence with Krista and orders Francesca to do the same. As Lydia purges Krista from her inbox, we spy over her shoulder a long list of emails from her to music directors of major orchestras, warning them not to hire her on grounds of mental instability.
Around the same time, Lydia decides to replace her long-serving assistant conductor in Berlin. Francesca is the clear favorite to take over the position, but when Lydia finds out (after borrowing her laptop) that Francesca has failed to delete her emails from Krista, she passes her over for the assistantship and hires another conductor instead, leading Francesca to quit her service.
And then Lydia meets Olga, a substitute cellist auditioning for a position in the Berlin Philharmonic. Lydia first sees her while washing her hands in the ladies’ room of the orchestra hall and is immediately taken with her. When Olga plays for a “blind” audition, Lydia spies her shoes underneath the audition screen, recognizes her, and votes her in. Soon afterward, Lydia chooses to program Elgar’s Cello Concerto (for which she knows Olga has recently played the solo) alongside Mahler’s Fifth. She holds an orchestra-wide audition to identify a soloist for the piece (a highly irregular practice in Berlin) and chooses Olga. Several one-on-one rehearsals later, Lydia invites Olga on her book launch trip to New York, a circumstance that deepens Lydia’s tensions with her wife, who also happens to be Berlin’s concertmaster.
By this time, Lydia’s worst fears are coming true. She is the target of a lawsuit from Krista’s family, alleging that Lydia’s malfeasance contributed to her suicide. As Lydia’s accusers take the suit public, her once-worshipful fans abandon her with startling rapidity. The Accordion Fellowship drops her, as does the Berlin Philharmonic. She spirals downward mentally and emotionally, hitting bottom when the orchestra puts on the Mahler concert without her. She sneaks backstage during the symphony’s opening trumpet fanfare and then charges toward her replacement, shoving him off the podium and standing before a shellshocked orchestra and audience, hair matted and teeth bared, as security guards rush onstage to drag her from the hall. Her career ruined, she is forced to restart from nothing, far away from the bright lights and high culture that were once her natural milieu.
Tár is a bold deviation from the cultural norm not only because it portrays a woman as the perpetrator in a #MeToo scandal but also because it portrays her with some degree of balance. The Lydia Tár we get to know has a tireless work ethic and leads the musicians around her by her own inspirational example. She refuses, as far as she is able, to profit in any way from being female (as opposed to simply from being a great musician), even to the point of suggesting early in the movie to the Accordion Fellowship’s main benefactor that the fellowship start admitting men, now that it had “made its point.” She genuinely loves and tries to be a good mother to her daughter.
Perhaps the biggest point in Lydia’s favor is her musical wisdom, in the writing of which Fields clearly consulted some great maestri. Her reflections on music and its relation to the broader culture are often profound. In the opening interview with Gopnik, she offers as lucid an explanation as any I’ve heard of why timekeeping constitutes the lion’s share of the conductor’s role, and why, far from being a mechanistic responsibility, timekeeping has such deep interpretive implications.
In a masterclass she teaches at the Juilliard School, she has the courage of her convictions to tell a student (a self-described “BIPOC, pangender person”), in front of a room of likeminded classmates, that composers’ identities (filtered through today’s approved identity categories of race, gender, and sexuality) matter not one jot next to the quality of the music they wrote. “As a U-Haul lesbian myself,” she tells him, “I’m not so sure about old Ludwig [van Beethoven]. But then I face him, and I’m confronted by his magnitude.” She concludes her diatribe by asking the student, in essence: If we judge composers and artists not by their work but by their identities, where does that leave you?
Like many profound thinkers, Lydia sometimes gets carried away by the sound of her own voice, leaving the listener to separate the wheat from the chaff. But even so, her character evokes a largely bygone era in orchestral music: a time when conductors were men of wide learning, limitless confidence, and consummate devotion to the art; when they left behind monumental recordings of the great masterworks that would still be discussed 50 years later; when they inspired the next generation of musicians not because of their race or sex but by their sheer presence; and when conductors themselves, not artistic administrators or consultants, set the agenda for the music world. (Looking across the landscape of American orchestras today, the only living conductor who could be said to fit this description is Michael Tilson Thomas, who, owing to his brain-tumor diagnosis, may be with us for only a few more years.)
It’s Lydia’s Bernsteinesque ability to inspire musicians and laymen alike that prompted Michelle Goldberg, in her review of Tár for the New York Times, to remark that “the movie seems to ask if something is lost when a culture no longer makes room for its sacred monsters.” Goldberg senses that music, like the culture at large, has begun to fear placing too much trust in the hands of its greatest talents because of the corruption that such empowerment can unleash.
Tár casts some doubt on the desirability of this trade-off and, in doing so, makes several crucial claims. It suggests that there is some inherent good in concentrating power in the hands of the most talented and most dedicated. It willingly acknowledges that the same intellectual and psychic power that can exalt the rich, beautiful, or talented can also corrupt them. And it suggests that, like talent itself, the corruptive tendency knows no boundaries of gender. While our “sacred monsters” once were all men, in an era of gender equality they can just as easily be women.
Perhaps most disturbingly for an elite culture weaned on #MeToo, Tár places these two objects—cultural enrichment and corruption—on opposite sides of a balance without telling us which way the balance ought to tip. This ambivalence alarms New Yorker movie critic Richard Brody, who, in his panning review, calls the film’s lack of a political perspective its Achilles’ heel. He writes:
The film seems to want it both ways: it sustains Lydia’s perspective regarding music, her professional relationships, and her daily aesthetic, while carefully cultivating ambiguity regarding what Lydia is charged with, in order to wag a finger at characters who rush to judgment on the basis of what’s shown (or, what isn’t). . . . By allowing her past to be defined by her résumé, [the film’s director Todd Field] shows that he, too, is wowed by it and has little interest in seeing past it.
What Brody considers the film’s essential “regressive” aspect—its failure to indict Lydia directly—I see as its greatest strength. Like many subjects of #MeToo scandals over recent years, Lydia is not a monster. She is not James Levine, who stands accused of turning Chicago’s Ravinia Festival into a playground for his perverted pleasures. She is, rather, a complex person both elevated and hamstrung by fame. She is wise in some areas and profoundly immature in others. Blanchett and Fields allow us to reach our own conclusions.
As well they should. For it is not “regressive” to suggest that powerful women can suffer from the same frailties as powerful men, any more than it is to acknowledge that they can achieve the same glories. Nor is it regressive to wonder whether in the arts, we must accept that empowering great artists necessarily means that a few will abuse that power. Perhaps, as Goldberg notes, if we stake everything on eliminating those abuses, we end up losing something as well. Perhaps we already have.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for FLC