Films about lesbians end badly. From the 1936 film “Dracula’s Daughter,” about a vampire who secretly yearns for women, to 1961’s “The Children’s Hour,” where a schoolteacher played by Shirley MacLaine commits suicide after being accused of being a lesbian, to “Monster” by 2003, for where Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing a street prostitute and a killer who dies by lethal injection, there is no happy ending.
Why did Field create Tár as a lesbian rather than a straight woman, or one of the great men themselves? The movie wouldn’t be as fascinating, as psychologically intriguing.
As a rule, in these films and dozens of others, lesbians live a miserable life (see “Ammonite” with Kate Winslet). They are ostracized and endure tragic and heartbreaking relationships (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”). The movies, as likable as they are, leave us with images of toxic women, broken relationships, and sad endings, though much of the misery is due to the cruelty and prejudice of others.
Now we have “Tár,” with the gorgeous Cate Blanchett playing Lydia Tár, her second major role as a lesbian after her Oscar-nominated turn in “Carol.” She was recognized for her outstanding performance on Monday with a Golden Globe nomination, and Oscar consideration is sure to follow. The film also received Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
In “Tár”, Blanchett plays the fictional director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, an artistic genius and an intimidating force. She’s in her fifties, with an eye for pretty, underserved, protected women who seem willing to reciprocate but, like almost everyone around her, fear her and reject her. Even if there is no physical strength, the power equation is not in favor of young women. After Tár is done, she brushes them off and turns on them, ruining their career.
Director and screenwriter Todd Field’s decision to cast Tár as a lesbian unsettled me. I was concerned that the film would perpetuate a negative toxic lesbian stereotype. But I changed my mind after seeing it. The heart of the film is not so much about a lesbian predator as the more general use and abuse of power, including sexual power, which Lydia wields at will.
But it also explores how this power also comes to hurt Lydia. Her arrogance and control over an elite world where she is unchallenged blinds her to herself and her sexual games. There is no doubt that her young daughters are drawn to her, drawn to her power and desire her desire. So when, towards the end of the film, a young cellist rejects her, it’s a shock.
Tár de Blanchett also does not realize that her relationships with these young women are abusive, nor does she view her cruel mistreatment of her veteran assistants as violence either. In her eyes, she is only asserting a privilege, like the great men she admires and tries to imitate, who enjoy unlimited power, who cross a room as if it belonged to them. She doesn’t think about the limits of her power because she has no limits. She believes her artistic genius excuses her disruptive force, sexual misconduct, infidelity, even the creepy way she bullies a classmate of her adopted daughter.
So why did Field create Tár as a lesbian rather than a straight woman, or one of the great men themselves? The movie wouldn’t be as fascinating, as psychologically intriguing. We’ve seen quite a few movies about overwhelming straight men and intriguing, seductive straight women. “Tár” is different, daring to put a lesbian in the role of genius and villain. At the same time, this choice is in some ways an equalizer: relationships between all sexes and genders should be on an equal footing, and giving critical scrutiny to a lesbian character helps to do that.
Of course, Tár de Blanchett has no equal in his rarefied intellectual and artistic world. Everything about her is exceptional: her sexuality, her genius, her career, her bespoke suits. Right off the bat, her character takes center stage, literally. The film opens with the elite of the New Yorker Festival, where writer Adam Gopnik, playing himself, recites a long list of his accomplishments as she listens smiling, relaxed in her chair, supremely at ease. comfort in his body, in this company.
And why not? She is the first female conductor of the great Berlin Philharmonic, she won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, publishes an autobiography titled – what else? — “Tár on Tár”, and will soon conduct a historic live recording of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5”.“Her intoxication with herself, her grandeur, her passion for music (the only real passion she feels) makes everyone around her small, insignificant.
Tár’s relationship with his assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) is a good example of this. Francesca has musical ambitions and depends on Tár to help her with her career. It’s unclear if they had sex, but we assume they did, and now that Tár is fed up with her, Francesca is ostracized, a person.
But it turns out that Tár can’t shake off those underlings that easily. She is stalked by a former protegee and lover, Krista, whom we only see in flashes. Tár dumped Krista and refuses to see her, but Krista pleads, sends gifts. When Krista commits suicide, the investigation delves into her relationship with Tár, threatening Tár’s untouchable reputation.
It seems almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The Golden Globes judges will be wrong if they don’t pick her for the highest acting honors.
In the end, however, it’s Tár’s own appetites that bring her down. When she falls in love with a young Russian cellist, Olga, who has just arrived in Berlin, she passes over a senior cellist to give Olga the coveted spot. But once she gets what she wants, Olga rejects Tár. Thus begins the end.
Despite this banter and Tár’s other seductions, the film is not about a predatory lesbian. The sexual aspect is only one element. Over two hours and 38 minutes, “Tár” has no graphic sex scenes, and the main character’s affairs feel like banter rather than all-consuming passion. Ultimately, we’re not sure she’s truly guilty of sexual harassment and abuse, whether or not she deserves public condemnation.
Does the film, and Blanchett in particular, change the negative image of lesbians on screen? I think so. This gives us a conflicting and multifaceted image, more convincing and complex, more seductive. It has almost everything to do with how Blanchett conveys that in her performance. His Lydia Tár is almost irresistible, and it seems nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The Golden Globes judges will be wrong if they don’t pick her for the highest acting honors.
“She burns like a cold flame,” wrote New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane. Even in the final scenes, when there is so little fire left in her, she has an aura, a provocative presence. It stays with you long after the screen goes black. It’s a searing image, with its havoc and grandeur, that defies stereotypes and is simply about being human.