This cancel culture takedown is the finest American film of the century

Unbecoming conduct: Cate Blanchett in Tár
Unbecoming conduct: Cate Blanchett in Tár - LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

When Tár arrived in British cinemas in January 2023, it divided views between adulation and boredom. I am an adulator. The boredom, for those afflicted, seemed to stem from two factors. First, Todd Field’s drama is set in the world of classical music, and if a viewer lacks a basic knowledge of that subject (as, sadly, thanks not least to our dismal education system, many do), then the film may prove a struggle. Second, it is more than two-and-a-half hours long. However, any intelligent person – which is to say, all readers of this column – should find Tár riveting. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it the finest American film this century.

Ultimately, Tár is less about music than about the abuse of authority, narcissism, the empowerment of women, the American “story” – and cancel culture. Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. It is one of the world’s greatest orchestras and Tár is conscious – rather too conscious – of her status and celebrity. Her name is manufactured (she was born Linda Tarr, on Staten Island) and she has, from humble beginnings, through talent and hard work, risen to the top of a competitive profession, winning every award along the way.

However, in the realm of high art, the main actors have complex personalities, and they don’t come more complex than Tár’s. As a conductor, she seeks perfection and will remove anyone whose supposed failings prevent this. Nor does she restrict her unhinged ferocity to the workplace: when a little girl upsets the daughter Tár has with her female partner, she tracks down the child and threatens her as she might a man who had crossed her. Gradually, she reveals herself as a very nasty piece of work.

She is equally brutal in her professional life. Her devoted assistant, who herself hopes to become a conductor, is passed over for the job that would have set her on her way. A hugely admired cellist is superseded by a brilliant young Russian woman who can without question master Elgar’s concerto, but whose appeal to Tár clearly goes beyond her ability to wield a bow.

As she upsets more and more people with her repellent high-handedness, Tár’s supreme abilities come to count for less – especially when the story emerges that a previous student Tár had groomed committed suicide after the maestra had her blacklisted for daring to leave her tutelage.

This is an exceptionally clever film about human nature, with outstanding performances, not least by Blanchett: it is inexplicable that she did not win the best actress Oscar for which she was nominated. To portray this level of brilliance and loathsomeness on the screen in a single character is an awesome achievement.

But it was also clever of Field to show that a world in which numerous male conductors have been accused of improprieties towards junior musicians should be exposed as one in which an empowered woman can behave monstrously, too. We are invited to consider, again, the separation of the art from the artist: if, for example, you play a recording conducted by James Levine, whose history of sexual abuse was known long before he was exposed in 2018, or of music by the anti-Semite Wagner, does that make you morally defective? As Tár shows, true art takes no account of moral failures.

I was alerted to the film by a colleague who sent me a clip of Tár’s devastating attack on a preposterous, privileged, black male student who has rejected Bach because the composer was privileged, male and white. Field has fun with the ludicrousness of cancel culture, and his attack is not diminished by choosing Tár herself to articulate it. Life is not black and white. Those in the music world who disliked this film – notably the conductor Marin Alsop, whom some critics identified as the model for Lydia Tár – either felt it came too close to the truth, or offended their own prejudices. Ignore them, and revel in Tár’s multilayered genius.