PReaders probably don’t need another reason to skip Tár, Todd Field’s much-discussed story about a feted bandleader who becomes a lightning rod for the #MeToo movement, but marin asp I was happy to oblige, however. Tár, the American driver told the Sunday Times, she was “anti-woman” and a personal affront. The film could have told the story of a rapacious male monster, but chose instead to make its protagonist a female director. “To have the opportunity to portray a woman in that role and make her an abuser,” Alsop said. “For me, that was heartbreaking.”

So, in Alsop’s opinion, Tár is a tragic missed opportunity. She wanted one type of lead and ended up with another, the way Jaws might have been a dog movie or GoodFellas might have been a New Jersey Samaritans tale. Some movies are like that. They confuse and confuse and alter our expectations. In this sense, at their best, they are a bit like life.

Is this what people want, a movie that is like life? The evidence suggests not: Despite rave reviews and mounting awards talk, Field’s drama has so far recouped just $6 million of its reported $35 million budget. Those who oppose it seem to share Alsop’s concerns, pointing to the character of Lydia Tár, a pioneering artist on the stage, a ruthless predator behind the scenes, as her main source of contention.

Some spectators were angry to discover that the woman “is not real”. Other smarter souls just don’t care about her. Reviewing the film in the New York Observer, veteran critic Rex Reed described Tár as “abstract”, “vague” and “crowdproof”. The leading lady was the problem: she wasn’t quite fit for purpose. “So much passion has been poured into the character of Lydia Tár,” he wrote, “[that] you really want to like it more.”

A star on stage, a monster behind the scenes... Blanchett with Nina Hoss in Tár.
A star on stage… Blanchett with Nina Hoss in Tár. Photography: Courtesy of Focus Features

I’m not sure I like her either. I’m not convinced we’re meant to. Played by Cate Blanchett, Tár is demanding and imperious, deceitful and vengeful: a serial sexual abuser who leaves a trail of victims in her wake. But this question of likeability, specifically female likeability, is clearly controversial. Last year saw the launch of Quinn Shephard’s Not well, an edgy black comedy that follows the fate of Danni, a social media influencer played by Zoe Deutch, who fakes her Instagram posts. It came preceded by a warning of sorts: “This movie contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unpleasant female lead.” This was partly a joke, Shephard later told IndieWire, but it was also a response to a series of negative test trailers. “It was interesting,” Shephard said, “that a lot of the audience seemed really upset that the movie was about Danni.”

It is at this point that a defense attorney may be forced to cross-examine. Would it have been different if Danni (according to Alsop’s complaint) was a man? Isn’t it up to the audience to decide who they like and who they don’t? And, come to that, does it matter? Who is purely nice anyway? I suspect the reason viewers thought Tár was a real person is because that’s how he reads on screen: as maddeningly variable as the rest of us. Blanchett’s master is inspiring and cruel, magnificent one minute and utterly monstrous the next. She doesn’t exist, but there are many like her who do.

About 20 minutes after Tar, there is a stage who brilliantly epitomizes the tensions of the film. A nervous student named Max announces that “as a pangender bipoc person” he “dislikes” cis white male composers like Bach. In return, Tár insists that he should not be so quick to judge. Good music crosses borders. She says that Max is a robot. She thinks identity politics is a trap. “The narcissism of small differences,” Tár blurts out, “leads to the most boring conformism.”

The setting is excellent: perfectly handled, building to a climax. It is also a spell fire test. The film is, at its core, a drama about cancel culture, steeped in the language of intersectionality and online clashes. So it’s a speech about speech, like a tennis ball bouncing back and forth, almost daring the viewer to choose a side. Read crudely, Field’s scene shows the common-sense crusader crushing the complacently awakened snowflake, except the tone is ambivalent and the dispute dirties both parties. Yes, Max is blindfolded, but Tár is a thug (and possibly just as blind). Both are right, both are wrong. Crucially, invigoratingly, we are not told what to think.

There’s a quote I like from Philip Roth (a man known, by the way, for weaving real-life people through his fiction). It’s from American Pastoral, when the narrator admits that he can’t stand up to the clumsy hero with feet of clay. “The fact is that making people right isn’t what life is about anyway,” he explains. “What you are experiencing is being wrong and wrong and wrong and then, after careful reconsideration, being wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.” Or how about this one, from W Somerset Maugham? “The longer I know people, the more they baffle me. My oldest friends are only the ones I can say I don’t know anything about.”

Similar territory… Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers
Similar territory… Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers Photography: Sony/Allstar

Obviously, no character-based drama can capture the full depth of the average human being, their changing natures, their glaring contradictions. But at least they can try. And within the confines of the film’s 158-minute running time, Tár manages to be proud, life-large, which is to say that she’s complex and combustible, a mystery to herself and others. It could be argued that she is part of a vanguard of the so-called unsympathetic on screen. This could include Vicky Krieps’ gruff Empress Elizabeth in the period saga. Bodicethe reserved Janis of Penélope Cruz in that of Almodóvar Parallel Mothersand the capricious seeker by Renate Reinsve in the worst person in the world.

But actually these women are part of a long tradition, one that goes back to the likes of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Jane Austen’s Emma, ​​and Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. All of these, too, were presumably seen as bad guys in their day. It is only the passage of time that has rounded its edges. To misquote John Houston in Chinatown: politicians, old buildings, and unsavory female characters: they all become respectable if they stick around long enough.

Most movies take us by the hand and light the way. Some, however, direct us into the forest and then challenge us to find our way back. These movies are unstable and volatile, full of unreliable people, painted in shades of gray. Martin Scorsese feels there are too many hand grabbers and too few challenges. These are “dark days” for cinema, the director lamented last week, which means they are actually too bright, too antiseptic, too tidy. But when he saw Tar, he said, “the clouds lifted up.”

I tend to wince at studies that suggest great books or auteur movies improve physical and mental health, because they make them seem like a terrible test: a worthy regimen, like a prune diet. But there is probably some truth to it. Fiction must be exciting, otherwise what’s the point? But the best dramas are the ones that stretch us, provoke us, make us find them halfway. And the richest characters are puzzles. They are the ones we can’t fully decipher.

Back in the classroom, Tár sits at the piano and plays Bach’s Prelude in C Major. He listens, he tells Max, still trying to win the boy over. The music is a question and an answer, which opportunely raises another question. Bach, he says, “knows that it is always the question that involves the listener. It’s never the answer.”

Tar, of course, is not entirely reliable, but it makes a lot of sense here. Great art asks us questions. Confused heroes do too. It’s not a movie’s job to pander to our preconceptions, parrot our opinions, and make sure we’re right. Nor, really, is a movie required to stay in its lane and give us well-defined good guys and bad guys; that simple and false moral structure. Fictional characters do not have to be examples of anything. Movie theaters, like universities and libraries, should be safe physical spaces, but intellectual and emotional danger zones.

Books are not mirrors, they are doors, as critic Fran Lebowitz likes to say, and the same is true of movies. Doors can be scary: we don’t know what’s behind them. But without opening a door, we all remain in our own silos. We miss out on a lifetime of adventure and a world of interesting people we haven’t met yet. Some of them will call us. Some we might like quite a bit.

  • Tar is in UK cinemas now and opens in Australia on January 26.

  • Comments on this article are pre-moderated to ensure that discussion on the issues raised by the author is maintained. Please note that there may be a short delay in the appearance of comments on the site.

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