Todd Field’s movie “Tar” tells the story of a woman who becomes a successful orchestra conductor and later falls from grace. Mary Evans writes that the movie re-creates clichés about how professional women relate to their work.
On the Oscars on 12 March 2023, it is widely predicted that the film Tar, written and directed by Todd Field, will collect prizes in addition to those already received. So to suggest that the film, far from being original and powerful, merely re-creates a host of well-known and well-rehearsed cliches about women, paid work, and problematic social and political issues is perhaps a minority opinion. However, what follows is the argument that rather than being an exceptionally good film it is – if not an exceptionally bad film – at least a confused and often contradictory one.
One of the major problems with Tar is the negative and arguably reactionary picture that it paints of successful women and their relationship to their work. In this case, the woman is Lydia Tar, the conductor of a major orchestra located in Berlin, loosely based on the Berlin Philharmonic. But through two conversations about the politics of music, Tar situates herself with those who decry any attempt to raise questions about the sometimes-complex histories of music, musicians, and a wider social world. The mixed behaviour of German conductors in the Hitler years is dismissed, as is an intervention by a student of colour in a class taught by Tar. The young man raises a concern about his relationship (and implicitly that of others who share his gender and race) with the music of J S Bach. He is rebuffed by Tar with a firm assertion about the unquestionable value of the music and a certainty that no social or political questions need be asked. We are equally encouraged to suppose that Tar herself disregards possible gender discrimination.
The incident with the student is one of the several in which Tar makes plain that her place in the world is that of leader, an exceptional ubermensch of music who is allowed to wield power over others. This, given the context of the film, is that of conducting the orchestra, but this is shown as less a work of collaboration between highly skilled people and more as an exhibition of individual certainty. No-one would take away the centrality of the role of a conductor in the interpretation of a musical score, but we might question the picture of leadership here. It is remarkably close to that of both the reality and the stereotype of male leaders of global companies: controlling, centralised, and acknowledging little of others.
In this case, of course, the CEO is a woman and here Hollywood (and much of the world) encounters the problem of women and power. Women political leaders across the world have spoken of the constant abuse that they receive; Tar, on the other hand, appears to believe that power is gender neutral. Young women are allowed, then dismissed (once with tragic consequences), as are older male colleagues. Reading these relationships makes it difficult not to see Lydia Tar as a re-iteration of Margaret Thatcher’s known refusal of the claims and talents of other women. But Tar does not remain powerful and in her downfall, her public loss of control, we are left to wonder if women are singularly ill-equipped for power, too emotionally frail to overcome the sheer extent of their agency.
At this point (the final third of the film) we start to see a little of the world from which Lydia (originally Linda) Tar emerged. Women named Linda must wonder why that name should have been deemed so unacceptable. Naming was just one issue with Lydia/Linda’s background. It was also materially grim, unfriendly, and generally painted as profoundly limited. From this we have to imagine that Lydia/Linda struggled to ‘get away from’ her background in exactly the way in which many on the political right conceptualise social mobility: that of leaving, ‘getting away from’ an unacceptable world (that world of low aspirations evoked by Liz Truss) for a more obviously aspirant culture.
The world which Lydia gained was one of private planes, clothes by expensive minimalists, and a home replete with industrial lighting and the determined concealment of any domestic or personal baggage. This aesthetic of success could be read as ‘simply’ a matter of personal taste and yet it conveys so vividly, and mimics so conscientiously, contemporary perceptions of visual perfection. The embrace of ‘simplicity’ by very rich people is one that appears across such pages of the imaginatively titled “How to Spend It” supplement of the UK’s Financial Times. In this, Tar as a credible or possible person disappears: she becomes simply a person who performs success.
Tar’s unhappy end as the conductor of an undistinguished orchestra suggests the inevitable falling from grace of anyone who has suffered from a surfeit of hubris. But in the case of Tar it is a woman who falls, a woman who has failed, the film suggests, through her own fault. Her failure lies in being unable to resolve the contradiction that continues to inform the ways in which women are portrayed in fiction and often expected to behave in reality. They are allowed to be successful in conventional ways more familiar to men and to endorse the idea that success is about genius and singular talent. It is not about the support or the encouragement of others. At the same time, women are expected to be, if no longer angels in the house, then at least sympathetic and caring individuals. Tar, however, is shown to be lacking in emotional and domestic engagement. (The single instance of Lydia Tar’s parenting is to threaten a small child). In addition to this, Tar also fails because she cannot recognise (and nor can the film) the strength of alternative ideas about the origin of success and the politics of culture. In this, the film reproduces much that is tired and familiar about women and success. But it also fails to make the case for ways in which the meaning and the agency of success can be understood and more equally shared.