Latent Images
‘Tár’ and Todd Field’s Cinema of Judgment
by Julian Hart

TÁR, Todd Field’s subtly grand depiction of a master artist in downfall, is a polarizing film, albeit deliberately so. Upon its release on the festival circuit, Field’s film has been entered into the lexicon of #MeToo films, as accomplished classical composer Lydia Tár (a brilliantly commanding Cate Blanchett) becomes the center of a sexual misconduct investigation. The investigation conflicts with her career and her ensuing concert leading the Berlin Philharmonic, due to both her reactions and behavior surrounding the allegations laid against her, as well as the scrutiny of others around her. The impetus of the debate around the film, as well as the key to Field’s particularly discursive approach to portraying his fictional composer, is that the audience doesn’t see the sexual misconduct in question, only suggestions laid in the center of the film, as well as its peripheries.

The release of the film this month marks the end of Field’s sixteen-year absence from cinema screens, following the critical and commercial successes of his last two features In The Bedroom and Little Children. If there is an auteurist throughline among his feature works, it’s his fascination with how people pursue their desires, often an escape or break from their solidified lifestyles, and how others view this pursuit. His debut feature, In The Bedroom, portrays a middle-aged couple, Matt and Ruth Fowler, whose suburban lives in Maine are disrupted when their son, Frank, in an affair with a thirty-year-old woman, is killed by her ex-husband. The subject of the film isn’t the son’s death but the parents, now in the throes of grief, reacting to the shooting and the ex-husband’s release on bail. Field isn’t concerned with the trial, or even the shooting (it’s left ambiguous as to if it was an accident or not), but how that uncertainty becomes a corrosive force in the Fowlers’ lives. The Fowlers’ aren’t vindicated of their desires either, with Matt guilty of pushing their son into a life (and woman) he desires, while Ruth, always critical and disapproving of her son, cements Frank’s dissatisfaction. 

Similarly, Little Children portrays a snapshot of several Boston suburbanites chasing their social and sexual desires. There is the affair between Sarah and Brad, two parents stuck in unhappy marriages, conflicting with Kathy’s insistence on Brad passing the bar exam and providing for their family. Larry, a disgraced ex-cop, excessively polices the neighborhood that houses a reforming sex offender, Ronnie, who struggles to reconcile communal morality with his past. Their goals couldn’t be more different. Ronnie wants to have a self-effacing reintegration into society while Larry wants to constantly call attention to it and assert moral superiority. An adaptation of Tom Perrota’s satirical novel, Little Children continues Field’s interest in people following their desires, in the nuances that people use to justify excursions into the illicit as well as the simplified “Madame Bovary is a slut” attitude that blindly denies them. In each film, Field plunges the audience into the depths of his characters’ desires, each longing for the audience to elucidate judgment.

TÁR doesn’t shy away from beckoning judgment, focusing the audience on the actions, decisions, and views that Lydia Tár adopts throughout the film. She is a strident classicist, frequently compared to and cited as influenced by Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein, and maintains a traditional reverence for the power of the conductor, a power that is corrupted by her goals and biases. Among one of the many choices to invoke the contemporary orchestral landscape is in Lydia’s introduction in the film, marked by the attestation to reality and the depth of the character. After a quick teaser, the opening titles are set against the sounds of the rainforest emblematic of the ethnographic work in the early portions of her career. Then the film begins with an almost documentary-like q&a presentation (among the contemporaries Lydia is compared to is the film’s composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir). The presentation is followed by a montage of Lydia’s daily and creative routines and a graduate class meeting in which she fiercely criticizes a questioning student (the latter of which is captured in an astounding long take). If the first thirty minutes are to elevate Lydia to the elusive masterful maestro figure, then the rest of the film is to show her encroaching destruction because of it. While her life and story are not over by the film’s conclusion, she has fallen from her place of greatness, from leading a world-renowned orchestra to performing at video game conventions.

Lydia’s undoing as the film progresses, as well as the ambiguity of certain circumstances in her personal life, will polarize audiences. One reaction, partly adopted by critic Richard Brody in his review for The New Yorker, is that Field’s film presents a regressive rebuttal to modern cancel culture. In having plausible deniability infused in the investigation plot and satirizing contemporary identity politics, Brody claims TÁR “is a useful reminder of the connection between regressive ideas and regressive aesthetics,” adopting a negative view of Lydia’s characterization and the reactions from peripheral figures in the film. This perspective posits that we are meant to identify or sympathize with Lydia, specifically in how we are limited to her perspective and what she chooses to remember. However, Lydia performs actions commonly emblematic of the figures punished by the #MeToo movement (e.g. denial, attacking the credibility of victims, manipulative quid-pro-quo interactions, and leveraging her power and notoriety). While we may not know exactly what happened between Lydia and Krista, we can make judgments about how she acts in the present, both before and after the misconduct allegations are presented. The claim that the exact circumstances should be made explicit would obfuscate the detachment needed to impose judgment on the characters. Why should Frank’s death be shown if we are to be as critical of the Fowlers as Richard? Why should we see the exact mistakes Larry and Ronnie committed if we are to judge them, and the other characters in Little Children, impartially? We don’t need the specifics of Lydia’s alleged misconduct to evaluate her as a person, just her actions. Though, Brody’s claims raise another issue regarding the presentation of Lydia Tár, particularly in Lydia’s confidence in the singular dominance in her role as conductor. There are few female analogs to Lydia Tár in reality, among whom have only recently entered the rank of top conductors across the world. Zachary Woolfe’s article in The New York Times goes further into detail on this shift, also noting the influence of “the myth of the all-knowing, all-hearing leader… that will inevitably corrupt women and men alike,” a myth that Field is eager to contend against. 

The ideology of Field’s film may seem cynical then, that the increasing diversity of leading conductors, as well as similar positions of creative and authoritative power, will only lead to future instances of misconduct and manipulation. However, it would be pragmatic to explore the effects of establishing and maintaining the kind of position that Lydia defends. If the predatory behavior exhibited by Lydia and her real-life counterparts remains everpresent, then there should be a reassessment of positions of power and the division of professional and personal pursuits. TÁR is not a vindication of the punished but a cautionary tale of repeating old sins. Whether or not we will continue to see predatory figures and behavior in leading positions, we should be critical of the power structures enabling them.