BY Caitlin Quinlan in Film , Opinion | 19 JAN 23

TÁR’s Manifestations of Power, Control and Legacy

Released in the UK this month, Caitlin Quinlan explores what Todd Field's TÁR (2022) reveals about the abuses of power and the possibilities of accountability 

BY Caitlin Quinlan in Film , Opinion | 19 JAN 23

TÁR, American director Todd Field’s first film in 16 years, is consumed by the inevitability of time. His creation here, the famed conductor Lydia Tár (a ferocious Cate Blanchett), hovers on the precipice of public and personal downfall as time creeps forward in the narrative. The film opens with a full set of credits: the understood, inevitable closure to most cinematic projects. With every passing minute, the threat of temporality presents itself: its infiniteness, its capacity for revelation.

Tár’s prestigious career at the helm of several major orchestras around the globe has laid time at her fingertips. ‘You cannot start without me,’ she says of conducting during an early interview scene with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself). Time is power. For Field, the siting of the credits at the beginning of the film is an exercise in power, too. On the one hand, it situates the labour and talent of the filmmaking team as foundational. On the other, it speaks to the hierarchies of production: where is the director – the ruling creative force – positioned? At the very beginning or the very end? Can the film start without him?

Tar film still Todd Field
Todd Field, TÁR, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Universal Pictures UK

Questions of legacy, tradition and emulation are tied up in the temporal concerns of Field’s film. In opening with the credits, he pays homage to the pre-1970s cinematic ‘golden age’, when this was the norm. A similar reverence for figures like Leonard Bernstein (Tár’s supposed mentor) or Gustav Mahler (Tár poses for a photograph re-creating the image used for the Deutsche Grammophon recording of his Fifth Symphony) lingers throughout the film and is then transposed onto Tár herself, whose lengthy accomplishments invite the affections, both professional and personal, of adoring fans. While she has done what she can to emulate the greats, her contemporaries, notably colleague Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), want to learn from her. ‘There’s no glory for a robot,’ she tells him when he asks to look over her score notes.

Robots, for Tár, are the worst of all. It’s also how she derides a class at New York’s Juilliard School of performing arts, in particular BIPOC student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who dares to oppose Johann Sebastian Bach for his misogyny. It’s how Tár views anyone who can’t stand on their own as she can and can’t command respect for their talent as she can. Her fiery temperament in the face of such ‘robots’ and the fervour with which she wields her conductor’s baton are performative symbols of her worthiness. ‘Didn’t you feel triumphant?’ asks Bernstein in a recorded masterclass that Tár re-watches towards the end of the film. And, throughout the film, she does – assured and comfortable in the luxuries that glory has delivered for her.

Tar film still
Todd Field, TÁR, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Universal Pictures UK

Field’s aesthetic choices in the film relay, rather overtly, ideas of coldness and rigidity that are oppositional to typical notions of luxury: for Tár, it’s also an appropriate manifestation of her control. Under the grey skies of Berlin, where she conducts the city’s philharmonic, the home she shares with wife and first violin Sharon (the gracefully sharp Nina Hoss) and their daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) is concrete chic. Her uniform is strictly tailored: there’s a manicured androgyny to her sense of style.

Eventually, time begins to claw against Tár’s efforts to tame it. Whispers and rumours of years-long sexual misconduct and bullying swarm around her and replicate; Sharon remembers the beginning of their own relationship as she watches Tár flirt with and indulge new orchestra member Olga (Sophie Kauer). There’s also her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), watching on with her own bitterness and rejected advances, completing a triptych of hurt women. Metronomes begin to tick in the night; a doorbell jingle invades her apartment; a scream is heard in the woods. Sounds that Tár can’t control take over her consciousness. Here, Field pulls the film into more explicit thriller territory by employing jump scares and terrors in the dark. The filmmaker invites us to speculate about what is actually happening and what are the imaginings of the unravelling Tár. Perhaps they are one and the same, but Field’s fracturing of the film’s perspectives and Blanchett’s stony smugness work in illuminating tandem to position the viewer in Tár’s paranoia. With her sense of control slipping, Tár sees her universe turn against her.

Todd Field Tar
Todd Field, TÁR, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Universal Pictures UK

In the two decades since his last film, Field has undoubtedly been conscious of evolving conversations around behavioural accountability and the consequences of abuses of power. TÁR takes an exaggerated, bordering on mocking, approach to the debate, with its heightened genre effects and pointed, Gen Z-bashing dialogue. It all speaks to the delusions, and rash defensiveness, of a group of people who wish to overlook the unwelcome behaviour of those who made the art they love. At the same time, this hyperbole and the varied readings of the film it invites can feel like ambivalence on Field’s part: if a film can say everything, is it really saying anything at all?

This standpoint works primarily because of how Tár’s arrogance, her unwavering steadfastness, is centred; the film is much more of an attempt to enter the psyche of a megalomaniac than it is a superficial portrait of a current debate, or of power dynamics in a creative space. As the film reaches its conclusion, Tár faces both revelation, the publicity of her misconduct, and the inevitable spinning wheel that suggests both she, and the many, many others who have committed abuses, will simply keep going.

Main image: Todd Field, TÁR, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Universal Pictures UK

Caitlin Quinlan is a freelance film writer and industry professional, based in London.