Midway through the enthralling new film “Tár,” the heroine, a brilliant and imperious classical music conductor named Lydia Tár, is talking about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer with her elderly former mentor.
“Schopenhauer measured a man’s intelligence against his sensitivity to noise,” her mentor says.
“Didn’t he once also throw a woman down a flight of stairs?” asks Tár.
“Yes,” he responds. “It was unclear that this private and personal failing was at all relevant to his work.”
This question — how to weigh a genius’ private and personal failings against her work — is at the centre of “Tár.” It’s a movie about a woman, played by Cate Blanchett, who has built herself in the image of the great, arrogant male cultural titans of the 20th century, only to be undone by the less indulgent mores of the 21st century. In other words, it’s a film about cancel culture, making it the rare piece of art that looks squarely at this social phenomenon that has roiled so many of America’s meaning-making institutions.
There’s something odd about this rarity, given how dramatically juicy struggles over sex, race and power can be. Sure, there are films like “She Said,” the Hollywood version of The New York Times investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse, which recently debuted at the New York Film Festival and opens next month. But that movie, while a captivating procedural, is morally simple. What we’ve been lacking are narratives that draw human complexity out of our combustible political debates.
Perhaps that’s because it’s really hard to do well. Reports of absurdly overzealous sensitivity reads suggest that publishers and producers fear backlash. There have been a couple of comedies that have taken on the idea of cancellation, but they’ve stacked the deck by making the person who gets cancelled either totally innocent, as in the 2021 TV series “The Chair,” or absurdly guilty, as in the satire “Not Okay.” Stand-up comedians, for whom attempted cancellation is monetisable, have been less cautious. But a dramatic work that asks you to empathise — if not sympathise — with a tragic figure who has done a lot of harm is more difficult to pull off. (Apparently there was a clunky attempt in “The Morning Show,” which I haven’t seen.)
“Tár” itself stacks the deck in one important way — by making its protagonist a woman. A swaggering, magnetic figure in bespoke suits who worships high culture and seems to delight in tweaking social justice assumptions, she’d be insufferable as a man. (She might be insufferable as anyone not played by the wildly charismatic Blanchett.)
Early on, a young conducting student tells her that “as a BIPOC pangender person,” they are not into Bach because of his misogyny. Tár, a self-described “U-Haul lesbian,” humiliates the student before making an impassioned case for artistic universalism. “You want to dance the masque, you must service the composer,” she says fiercely. “You’ve got to sublimate yourself, your ego. And yes, your identity.”
The New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who dissented from the largely rapturous reception “Tár” has received, mentioned this scene while arguing that the film is bitter and reactionary. I saw it differently. Though a misleadingly edited version of the exchange appears later in the film, it has little to do with Tár’s downfall; this is not a movie complaining that you can’t say anything anymore.
Rather — stop reading here if you’re avoiding spoilers — Tár is destroyed because of the lives and careers she has ruined. The film unfolds like a thriller, but what is pursuing the protagonist are her own sins.
These sins reveal themselves slowly and obliquely. We learn that a former protégée, Krista, with whom Tár had some sort of romantic relationship, killed herself, and see evidence, which Tár tries to hide, that Tár had blackballed her. Speaking to her current assistant — with whom there’s also a hint of sexual impropriety — Tár is coldly dismissive of Krista: “She wasn’t one of us.” Later, we see Tár trying to groom a young cellist; in the service of her attempted seduction, she denies another musician a solo that should have been hers.
Tár, then, isn’t a victim, except perhaps of the once-common assumption that profound talent licenses rapacious appetites. It’s true that the movie seems to ask if something is lost when a culture no longer makes room for its sacred monsters. The man who replaces Tár on the conductor’s podium is a mediocrity, and the final scene is an indelible image of artistic abasement. But while the film forces the viewer to identify with Tár, it doesn’t exonerate her. Her unravelling is gutting to witness, not because it’s undeserved but because she’s human.
In my experience, most people, especially those who are middle-aged and older, have complicated and contradictory feelings about the rapid changes in values, manners and allowances that fall under the rubric of cancel culture. They’re glad to see challenges to elite impunity, and uncomfortable about what can seem like mob justice. The notion of separating the art from the artist has gone out of fashion, but a progressive version of old-fashioned morality clauses isn’t a satisfying replacement.
“Tár” demonstrates that all this flux and uncertainty is very fertile territory for art. Hopefully its success — many are predicting it will win a best picture Oscar — will encourage others to take on similarly thorny and unsettled issues. Hysteria about cancel culture can encourage artistic timidity by overstating the cost of probing taboos. In truth, there’s a hunger out there for work that takes the strangeness of this time and turns it into something that transcends polemic.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Michelle Goldberg became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in 2017 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.