It’s reductive to call “TÁR” a Me Too movie. But five years since The New York Times and New Yorker investigations into the abuses of Harvey Weinstein spurred a societal movement , “TÁR” is perhaps one of the most direct fictional films in recent memory that seems so clearly to be a response to — or at least a reflection of — that real-life reckoning.
In writer-director Todd Field’s first film since 2006’s suburban drama “Little Children,” Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, a world-renowned orchestra conductor and composer. She is also one of a handful of women who’ve succeeded in the predominantly male field of classical music. However, to do so, she mainly plays by men’s rules. And she’s the kind of old-school feminist who believes, in some ways, since centuries of men have been able to get away with horrific behavior, so should she. Throughout the movie, she’s tyrannical and transactional — and it’s alluded to that she may have abused a former mentee and perhaps others too.
There’s much to admire about “TÁR” and its attempts to raise thorny questions without easy answers. Premiering in theaters Friday after generating acclaim at the Venice, Telluride and New York film festivals, “TÁR” is a movie that will provoke a lot of complex responses and merits a lot of pondering and sitting with its discomfort. But frustratingly, by making its main character a perpetrator of abuse and giving her complexity, it ends up replicating some of the shortcomings of the Me Too movement. By doing so, it undercuts the movie’s overall impact.
Lydia is an incrementalist at best. She draws a distinction between herself and the predatory men who preceded her. For example, she’s in the process of choosing a successor for her orchestra’s assistant conductor, who she’s “rotating out” because of his history of predatory behavior. But she’s also a reactionary, reproducing the same old system.
Early in the movie, in a scene between her and a wealthy benefactor to a fellowship she founded for women in conducting, she tells him the fellowship no longer needs to be for women because she believes women entering the profession are no longer facing gender inequality. In another scene, she’s teaching a class at Juilliard. One of her students tells her he has no interest in conducting Bach, pointing out how the classical music canon is dominated by dead white men who espoused racist and misogynist views. She humiliates the student in front of the class.
These exchanges show that she firmly believes in separating the art from the artist. She makes the frustrating conflation between not wanting to be reduced to her gender as a woman in a male-dominated profession and excusing men’s transgressions because she thinks their personal lives don’t reflect who they are professionally. The way she gets under the viewer’s skin helps create the movie’s constant, unshakeable tension.
In portraying such an impenetrable character who seems designed to provoke audiences, Blanchett indisputably gives a virtuosic performance. She appears in virtually every frame of the movie’s 2 hours and 37 minutes and has to convey a symphony of complicated emotions.
The movie does not justify Lydia’s behavior or cast her in any sympathetic light, as it gradually documents her fall from grace. But still, by making the movie a character study about her, it’s about the complexity of an abuser. By definition, the film gives her a chance to have some level of nuance and opens up the possibility of understanding her — and, to some degree, even humanizing her.
The people she has abused are given no such dimensionality. Throughout the film, the former mentee is alluded to but is always offscreen, remaining a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows of the movie. Part of this is for narrative reasons: to create intrigue and leave the audience watching and hanging on every word and detail. But the character’s absence throughout the movie (until we later find out what happened to her) is telling.
It’s not unlike what happens to survivors of abuse in real life. Their famous abusers — alleged or admitted — often get to keep becoming powerful or continue to remain in the public eye. Their famous abusers complain about “getting canceled” — while getting a platform to espouse those complaints (and often, then get a platform to “make a comeback”).
By contrast, those who speak out about abuse are often driven out of their industries, never to be seen again. The opportunities and second chances granted to their abusers are seldom, if ever, given to them.
Where are the movies about that? In the five years since the Weinstein stories accelerated the Me Too movement, there still has not been a sufficient reckoning with what we’ve lost because of these systems of abuse. The people whose careers suffered or ended because they were abused and dared to speak out about it, the work they never got to do, their potential never realized. Those are the people who’ve been canceled.
None of this is to say “TÁR” isn’t worthy of attention or praise. But hopefully, it inspires and opens the door to other kinds of explorations of these big questions, especially works that don’t necessarily make the abuser the protagonist.
One potential counterpoint to “TÁR” is a fictional movie that’s very much reflective of real-life circumstances: “The Assistant,” which premiered in early 2020 and is available on Hulu. The abuser is never seen in it, only heard on the phone and behind his closed office door. Julia Garner plays Jane, an assistant to an unnamed Weinstein-like figure. She does every manner of the menial tasks, gets berated by the boss, and has a suspicion that the meetings she is setting up for him are… you know where this is headed. All around her, the company’s employees seem to know precisely what is happening but resign themselves to it.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, the film is bone-chilling, made even more so by its sparse minimalism, eye-level camera work, and succinct 87-minute runtime. In one of its most unnerving scenes, Matthew Macfadyen plays the company’s slimy and useless HR executive, like taking Tom from “Succession” and making him more overtly sinister.
Jane tries to tell him about the pattern of abuse she suspects is happening.
He dismisses her concerns, before dissuading her from speaking out in order to protect her chances of ascending in the film industry and achieving her dream of becoming a producer.
“Why are you in here trying to throw it all away over this bullshit?” he says.
“The Assistant” is one of the best-fictionalized movies of the Me Too reckoning thus far because it’s not really about the abuser. It’s about who’s implicated in and perpetuating systems of abuse — sometimes unwittingly, like assistants and other low-level employees. Like “TÁR,” it raises complex societal questions. But it does so without giving complexity to an abuser.
“TÁR” premieres in select theaters Friday, before expanding nationwide on Oct. 28.