Brutal Maestro: Why has Cate Blanchett’s cult film “Tarr” angered so many people? | Movies

sUnters probably wouldn’t need another reason to skip Tár, Todd Field’s much-discussed tale of a favorite leader who becomes a lightning rod for the #MeToo movement, but Marin Alsop was happy to oblige nonetheless. Conductor Tarr told the Sunday Times it was “misogynistic” and a personal insult. The movie could have told the story of a greedy male monster, but chose instead to have its female lead. “For the opportunity to portray a woman in the role and make it offensive,” said Alsop. “For me, that was heartbreaking.”

In Alsop’s view, Tarr is a tragic missed opportunity. She wanted one kind of protagonist and ended up with another, in the same way that Jaws might be a dog movie or GoodFellas a narrative of New Jersey samaritans. Some movies are like that. They confuse, confuse, and subvert our expectations. In that respect, at their best, they’re fairly life-like.

Is this what people want a life-like movie? The evidence isn’t so: Despite glowing reviews and ever-increasing award talk, Drama Field has so far only made back $6 million of its rumored $35 million budget. Those who opposed it seem to share Alsop’s concerns, identifying the character of Lydia Tár—a leading artist on stage, a ruthless predator on the wings—as the main source of contention.

Some viewers were upset to discover that the woman “wasn’t real”. Other, more intelligent spirits simply don’t care about it. Reviewing the film in The New York Observer, veteran critic Rex Red called Tarr “abstract,” “mysterious,” and “audience-resistant.” The protagonist was the problem: she wasn’t quite fit for purpose. “So much passion has been distilled into Lydia Tarr’s character,” he wrote.[that] You really want to love her more.”

A star on stage, a beast in the wings... Blanchett with Nina Manes at Tar.
A star on stage… Blanchett with Nina Manes at Tar. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

I’m not sure I like her either. I’m not convinced we’re supposed to do that. As played by Cate Blanchett, Tár is stern, domineering, duplicitous and vindictive – a serial sexual assaulter who leaves a trail of victims in her wake. But this question of admiration, and specifically female love, is clearly a puzzling one. Last year saw the release of Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay, a tense black comedy that follows the fortunes of Dani, a social media influencer played by Zoe Deutch, who fakes her Instagram posts. It prefaced with a warning of sorts: “This movie contains bright lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikeable heroine.” Shepherd later said that this was partly a joke, but that it was also in response to a number of negative test previews. “It was interesting that a large segment of the audience seemed really upset that the movie was about Danny,” Sheppard said.

At this point, the defense attorney may be taken in for cross-examination. Would it have been different if Danny (according to Allsopp’s complaint) had been a man? Isn’t it up to the audience to decide who they like and who they don’t? And come to that, does that matter? Who is loved anyway? I think the reason viewers thought Tarr was a real person is because she reads on screen that way: just as maddeningly shapeshifting as the rest of us. Maestro Blanchett is inspiring, ruthless, and brilliant one minute and downright brutal the next. It does not exist, but many like it do exist.

After about 20 minutes of Tarr, there’s a scene that brilliantly sums up the tensions of the movie. A nervous student named Max declared that “as a badass Bipoc”, he was “not interested” in white male composers like Bach. In contrast, Tarr insists that he should not be so quick to judge. Great music pushes boundaries. She says Max is a robot. She believes identity politics is a trap. Tarr snaps: “The narcissism of the smallest differences makes for the most boring compatibility.”

Set pieces are fantastic: well-drived and peaking. It’s also a litmus test of sorts. The film is, at its core, a drama about cancel culture, steeped in the language of crossover and internet heaps. So it’s talk of discourse, like a tennis ball bouncing back and forth, all but daring the viewer to choose a side. Read crudely, the scene shows Field’s crusading instinct turning away from the awakened Snowflake, except that the tone is jarring and the quarreling irritates both parties. Yes, Max is a blink but Tar is a bully (and arguably quite a bully). Both are right, and both are wrong. Crucially, and forcefully, we are not told what to think.

There’s a quote I like from Philip Roth (a man notorious, by the way, for weaving real-life people through his imagination). It’s from American Pastoral, when the narrator admits he can’t handle the bumbling hero. “The fact remains that making people right isn’t what it’s like to live anyway,” he explains. “To get them wrong is to live, to get them wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, to get them wrong again. This is how we know we are alive: we are wrong.” Or how about this one, from W Somerset Maugham? “The longer I know people, the more they puzzle me. My oldest friends are only those about whom I can say I don’t know the first thing.”

Similar area... Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers
Similar area… Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers Photo: Sony/Allstar

It is clear that no character-driven drama can capture the full depth of the common man, his changeable nature and its apparent contradictions. But they can at least try. And within the confines of the film’s 158-minute running time, Tár manages to stand proud, big as life, that is, complex and combustible, an enigma to herself and others. One could claim that she is part of the vanguard of so-called unsympathetic people on screen. That could include Vicki Krebs’ scribbling Empress Elisabeth in the period epic Corsage, Penelope Cruz’s undercover Janis in Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, and Rinat Renzve’s volatile detective in The Worst Person in the World.

But really these women are part of a long tradition, a tradition that stretches back through the likes of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Jane Austen’s Emma, ​​and Thackeray’s character Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. All of these, too, are presumably seen as bad in their day. It’s just the passage of time that’s around its edges. If we’re misquoting John Huston’s Chinatown: the politicians, the old buildings, the unlikeable female characters – they all get respectable if they stick around long enough.

Most movies hold our hands and light the way. Some, though, wave us through the woods and then challenge us to find our way out. These movies are unstable and volatile, full of unreliable people, painted in shades of grey. Martin Scorsese feels there are too many hand holders and too few challenges. These are cinema’s “dark days,” as the director lamented last week, meaning that they are actually very bright, very antiseptic, and very tidy. But when he saw Tarr, he said, “The clouds have risen.”

I tend to cringe at studies that suggest big books or art films improve your physical and mental health, because they make it seem like such an ordeal: a worthy diet, like a diet of prunes. But maybe there is some truth to that. Fantasy should be exciting, otherwise what’s the point? But the best dramas are those that stretch us, excite us, and make us meet halfway. And the richest characters are mysteries. They’re the ones we can’t quite figure out.

Back in the classroom, Tár is sitting at the piano and playing Bach’s Prelude in C Major. She told Max, “Listen, she’s still trying to win the baby over.” Music Q&A duly raises another question. Bach says, “He knows that this is the question that always engages the listener. It is never the answer.”

Of course, Tarr can’t be completely trusted – but she makes perfect sense here. Great art asks us questions. Confused heroes do too. It’s not the movie’s job to stick to our preconceived notions, parrot our opinions and reassure us that we’re right. Nor, for that matter, is the movie forced to stay in its lane and give us the good guys and the bad guys; This pseudo-simple moral structure. Fictional characters don’t have to be models for anything. Movie theaters, like colleges and libraries, should be physical safe places, but they are areas of intellectual and emotional danger.

Books aren’t mirrors, they’re doors, as critic Fran Liebowitz likes to say—and the same is true of movies. Doors can be scary: we don’t know what’s behind them. But without opening a door, we all stay in our own silos. We miss a life full of adventure and a world of interesting people we haven’t met yet. Some of them will terrify us. Some we may absolutely love.

  • Tár is showing in cinemas in the UK now, and opens in Australia on January 26th

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