Before the release of his latest film, Todd Field appeared to have become a marginal figure in Hollywood. Having won critical acclaim for his dark family dramas In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2005), the auteur subsequently set his sights on ‘material that was probably very tough to get made’, as he put it: an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a political thriller co-written with Joan Didion, a series adapted from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Now, after a fifteen-year hiatus, Field has assured lasting notoriety with Tár: the story of a star classical music conductor – Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett – who is working on a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic until she is felled by a spectacular MeToo scandal. Accused of sexually abusing younger female musicians, and ultimately driving one of them to suicide, she is subjected to the crowd justice of social media, ousted from her position and exiled to an anonymous East Asian megacity.

Were viewers dealing with a film hostile or sympathetic to cancel culture? Pro- or anti-‘woke’? In the New York Times, Ross Douthat praised Tár for resisting the seemingly inexorable spread of social-justice ideology. By contrast, The Spectator’s arts editor, Igor Toronyi-Lalic, described it as a betrayal of the medium: ‘a New Yorker long read masquerading as cinema’. At the New Yorker itself, Richard Brody recoiled from Field’s supposed apologism for his protagonist, while the Guardian’s Wendy Ide saw a straightforward condemnation of the ‘monstrous maestro’. Such clashing interpretations reflected the difficulty of locating the film politically. Reviews that positioned it on either side of the ‘culture war’ seemed inevitably reductive. Its reception exposed a Weltanschauung increasingly helpless in the face of artistic ambiguity: the ‘intolerance of ambivalence’ that Freud once saw as the hallmark of the neurotic personality.

For many of its detractors, Field’s story was simply not believable. In De Standaard, Gaea Schoeters chastised him for making the film’s offender a lesbian given the fact that LGBT people make up a small minority of sexual abusers. Another commentator asked whether ‘we need another lesbian predator in lesbian cinema at a time when “grooming” hysterias have reached a new fever pitch among conservatives’. Marin Aslop made a similar case in the pages of the Sunday Times – declaring, ‘I’m offended by Tár as a woman, as a conductor, as a lesbian’ – while Emma Warren remarked that its depiction of gender politics in the classical music scene was a misleading fantasy. A peculiarly inflexible aesthetic ideal underpins these arguments: art must offer a faithful reflection of reality, a statistically valid median. Only by this method can it secure its moral collateral.

Tár seems to both elicit and frustrate this type of reading. On the one hand, the film is devoted to verisimilitude. Real life constantly intrudes upon the narrative: the opening scene features the New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik playing himself; Lydia’s fictional mentor closely resembles the non-fictional Herbert von Karajan; and at one point, when Lydia is rushing to delete a batch of potentially incriminating emails, we recognise the names of several contemporary composers in her inbox. Throughout, Field meticulously evokes the authentic world of the Bildungsbürgertum: the conductor’s snapback and winged fashion coat, the grand piano in the pied-à-terre in Friedenau, the concrete corridors of the metropolitan flat, the chrome-black Porsche which shuttles her through Berlin. If one types the words ‘Is Lydia’ into Google, the first suggestion reads ‘Is Lydia Tár a real person?’ It is clear why Schoeters et al. would criticize Field for betraying the factual truth-criteria that the film seems to establish.

On the other hand, by eschewing the most common MeToo formula – in which the culprit is a Weinsteinesque patriarch – Tár simultaneously attempts to transcend such literalist readings. It suggests that the power structure undergirding gendered oppression will always predominate over the people occupying it. Hierarchies predate abuse, and gender roles are often fluid. If Field’s depiction of a lesbian predator puts us at somewhat of a distance from reality, this may allow for more sophisticated reflection on the forces and relations that shape it. This is perhaps why the moralistic commentary on Tár runs into an explanatory impasse; for it is not Lydia’s personal culpability but these impersonal forces that are the real subject of the film.

The most obvious among them is the stratified sphere of classical music – in which the lower ranks can only improve their career prospects by cultivating informal relationships with those higher up the ladder. Musicians who are easily replaceable must render themselves irreplaceable by courting favour with the maestro. Ultimately, Lydia’s crime is to push this dynamic beyond the acceptable limits designated by the industry. In exchanging professional advancement for sexual or emotional intimacy, she exposes the inherent asymmetry of this coercive labour market. The protagonist seems to recognize this towards the end of the film, when – upon entering a massage parlor in Asia – she is nauseated by the apparent interchangeability of the female servants. As Slavoj Žižek pointed out in his review, the arrangement of the masseuses resembles the orchestral hierarchy that we see throughout the film: Lydia at the head of her band, the plenipotentiary who gets to pick between the subordinates. In Berlin, this setup was naturalized. Abroad, it provokes disgust.

This structural tension between maestro and musicians overlaps with a series of broader cultural conflicts that are illustrated by Lydia’s fall from grace. One of them, as Zadie Smith noted in the New York Review of Books, is a growing generational gap at the heart of Atlantic liberalism. Lydia is a Gen-Xer with boomer affects, while her staff and students are mostly millennials and zoomers. In the wake of the 2008 crash, these cohorts have drifted to the edges of two different professional cultures: divided not only by life prospects and asset wealth, but also by received notions of political correctness and propriety. Yet while living in these separate lifeworlds they must continue to inhabit the same workplaces: a combination that can easily prove combustible.    

The second, related conflict concerns the commercial interests that shape the institutions of classical music. After the allegations against Lydia are made public, the directors of the opera house evince little interest in their truth value. She may or may not be guilty. In predictably postmodern fashion, the question is one of public perception: if enough of their customers believe she is culpable, then – in strict accounting terms – she must be. A crucial pillar of high culture is thus eroded: classical music can no longer sustain itself through its intrinsic worth; its marketability must take precedence.

A third conflict concerns the dynamics of globalization. Some years ago, Lydia left her native New York to devote herself to the high arts in the Old World – where, she may have assumed, the ‘woke mob’ would not be banging on the gates. Yet her professional disgrace registers a fatal cross-pollination: Berlin is now rapidly Americanizing, assailed by those same moralists roving on the home front (a process accelerated by the transatlantic alignment that followed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine). Protesters wield banners outside Lydia’s house theatre; Twitter users post images that purportedly show her entering a hotel with a young woman; Field’s theatre stewards talk like Anglo-Saxon marketeers. If Lydia thought she could take refuge in Europe, she was mistaken. Just as classical music is no longer insulated from the pressures of the dominant culture, neither is its birthplace.

Tár is, above all, a guide to these twenty-first-century symptoms. For Lydia, their antithesis is the great American conductor Leonard Bernstein. Towards the end ofthe film, she watches one of his performances on an old VCR recording in the house where she grew up, her face covered in tears. When she was a child, it was Bernstein who inspired her to embark on the musical career that lifted her out of her modest circumstances. At that time, the subaltern classes could still look up to the most ennobling elements in Western culture. Highbrow composers were writing popular musicals and introducing TV-viewers to Wagner. Harold Rosenberg famously derided Bernstein as an embodiment of the kitsch implicit in all pop culture – yet, in a typically contemporary reversal, the kitsch of 1958 has morphed into the haute culture of 2022. Today’s bourgeoisie has not only shut its gates but dynamited the fortress itself. The students in Lydia’s Julliard class represent a ruling caste that grew up watching Marvel movies and Disney Plus: a cohort that can no longer honour the supposed ideals of their social stratum. To them, Beethoven is a dead white man; Bach a misogynist. In this new conjuncture, Bernstein represents a lost world – a fusion of high and low that was fleetingly possible in the post-war period and has now vanished forever.

In depicting this cultural ideal, Tár evokes another film about the task of the composer: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Both Lydia and Aschenbach are artists who descend from the Apollonian into the Dionysian. In Visconti’s final scene, the syphilitic protagonist stumbles across the beach to the tones of the Adagietto in Mahler’s Fifth. In the ephebe Tadzio, he thought he’d found salvation; but ultimately, only the Fall beckons. The conclusion to Tár, however, is somewhat different. We watch Lydia overseeing her orchestra; but now it is posted abroad, performing video game soundtracks to an auditorium of Asian teenagers. Here, there can be no triumph of the irrational. Dionysus will not be crowned king, and Lydia will not collapse as Nietzsche before his horse. Instead, she will stubbornly continue to practice her art amid the ruins of the 2020s.

Is this a moving elegy for a more democratic culture, or a self-pitying ode to a historically outdated idea of craftsmanship? Once again, Field suspends judgement. As viewers, we must do without deployable certainties. Such reticence is welcome amid the dogmatic debates at which contemporary liberalism has proven so adept. As a director, Field is trying to reinstruct his audience in the virtues of ambivalence. Yet this ambiguity could also be said to serve a different purpose: an alibi for evasion, an impotent postponement of politics. What, after all, is Tár about? Power, generational struggle, hierarchies, gender, classes, culture, art. All of that? It is as if Field clears his throat for a shocking pronouncement but never dares to make it.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Sabzian.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘What’s Your Place?’, NLR 136.