I can’t remember the last time a movie divided opinion as Tár has. When I saw it – at the Barbican, in the City of London, where audiences tend to be on the committed side – a couple in the row behind me noisily walked out after an hour. On social media, men insist Todd Field’s award-winning film – about the fall of a renowned composer and conductor, Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett – is just so much pretentious, culture war dross; in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith’s awestruck scene-by-scene anatomisation runs to thousands of words and comes with footnotes. Does Tár set back the cause of women in classical music? Marin Alsop, the American conductor, believes that it does. But her colleague Natalie Murray Beale, who trained Cate Blanchett for the role, disagrees.
For my part, I can’t, and won’t, rewrite my response to it. There in the dark, I was exhilarated, afraid, shocked, admiring, amazed, annoyed and amused; even my occasional boredom was weirdly fervent. Is Lydia Tár dislikeable? I understand that she might be; that it’s possible to see her as a fiend. But dislike was one thing I did not feel. At this point, I’m down with fiends. When it comes to art, we need more of them. The dread words “relatable” and “resonant” are still chewing away at creativity, like mice gnawing cables; if this is allowed to go on, said cables will soon transmit no electricity at all. When people scoff, de haut en bas, at the scene in which Tár and a student argue about JS Bach (the student says his “misogynistic life” rules out the music), I can only wonder where they’ve been living. In a wood-panelled room with no internet? Of course it’s simplistic. But I’ve also spent years researching a book about all this. Believe me when I tell you that almost as many people take such arguments seriously as know The Well-Tempered Clavier backwards.
In the end, though, my response to Tár had less to do with Art Monsters (copyright: Jenny Offill) than with the feeling that here was a proxy for all the rage I’m not allowed, as a middle-aged woman, to express. It was physical, really. Cate Blanchett is the same age as me, and there she was, filling up the screen: taking her place, the opposite of invisible. I gaped enviously at her white shirts and her bespoke suits; the poured concrete of her apartment; the pad across town kept, it is implied, for extra-marital sex; the workaholic tendencies; the naked pride in her talent. I recognised her mid-life crisis, the metronome ticking for women as it never does for men. I laughed darkly to myself when a colleague she humiliates, previously so obsequious, spewed out his male hatred. How easily it came to him, coiled inside all the time.
In the scene when Tár storms the stage to wrest her precious annotated score from the man who has stolen it – a violent scene that is none the less powerful for being (perhaps) a fantasy – I felt a fierce combination of rage and satisfaction course through my body. I know, I know. She shouldn’t have kicked and punched him. But he had taken something from her: a hard-won thing. All you men who think Tár is pretentious: your problem is perhaps that you have never had to sit quietly while others steal your ideas; talk over you, as if you did not exist. You are listened to. The baton is always in your hand.