The controversy surrounding Todd Field’s Tár (2022) focused on its narrative of Lydia Tár’s moral turpitude and the ways in which it incited the kinds of public response collected under the term “cancel culture.” While that is certainly a boldly stated concern of the film, this essay argues that the representation of debates around cancel culture are in fact presented through a series of cliched public interactions, where there is little nuance and little surprise. Instead, Hardie suggests that in scenes that describe the infrastructural back space of Tár’s career, a more subtle and intriguing set of exchanges between women is shown. These exchanges are not exempt from the charge of turpitude, but rather are nuanced through their formal and contextual properties. They rely on the film’s citation of the prestige lesbian films of recent past, Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) and Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma, 2019) through the presence of Cate Blanchett and Noémie Merlant and on a queer potential derived from these spaces of segregation and intensity. Tár uses this opposition of open and closed spaces to set the stage for its coda, where the cosmopolitan landscape of Tár’s life is supplanted by something more genuinely of the world.

Musician and maestro Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in Todd Field’s Tár.

Musician and maestro Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in Todd Field’s Tár.

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After her daughter shyly confesses that she is being bothered at school, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) approaches Petra’s schoolyard bully Johanna (Alma Löhr) and introduces herself like this: “Ich bin die Vater von Petra” (“I am Petra’s father”). I am not the only viewer of Tár (Todd Field, 2022) who found this moment thrilling, a shocking but also exciting statement that helps establish the film’s interest in hierarchy, misbehavior, and women pushing each other around.1 My goose bumps registered not only a moment of grammatical and lexical, cognitive surprise but also an affective sensation—frightful excitement—evoked by the casual imperturbability that characterizes Tár’s feckless moral turpitude. Not as flagrant as the intergenerational abuse Field studied in his two previous films, Little Children (2006) and—more subtly—his May–September romance In the Bedroom (2001), Tár’s brusque assault of Johanna nonetheless announces early on that transgressions are again at the center of the narrative. It demonstrates in miniature the kinds of personal and professional infractions for which Tár will be condemned as her sense of impunity comes up against an era that requires public reckoning. Is Tár’s particular vice the arrogation of male privilege to herself, her fraudulent politics of equality, her outmoded “U-Haul lesbian” triangulated domesticity? This dawdling and chaotic, and mostly (ironically) quiet film touches upon these questions without properly articulating, let alone resolving, them into a stable line of inquiry about the “problem” of Tár. The very terms of investigation, instead, are queered.

Tár has been widely discussed as a film about “cancel culture,” presenting a story that pits the value of virtuosic talent against sexual miscreance, and within that a critique of enduring patriarchy, the predicament of a women in the middle of a quintessentially masculine field and its privileged ways of being in the world. It has been justly celebrated for the miraculous performance of Cate Blanchett as she inhabits its central character, a preternaturally gifted musician, composer, and maestro.2 Tár’s sprawl and pace have caused some viewers to see a kind of epic grandeur in the film’s episodic unraveling of problems central to the world of classical music: what success in this realm requires not only in terms of skill and practice, but also mentorship, sponsorship, and apprenticeship.

While these are certainly significant ways to think about Tár, for me they all presuppose a central coherence belied by the film’s entropy. Through both its mise-en-scène and cinematography, the film swings between oppositions: between male and female (“die Vater”), genuine and fake, the culmination of a career and its desecration. Tár is presented as a lesbian who mimics masculine privilege in her repeated affiliations to father figures, her pleasure in emasculating gestures, and her pursuit of illicit entanglements with women over whom she has institutional sway. But it rehearses those patterns as clichés to generate a series of episodes where the hackneyed cultural logic of cancel culture predictably unwinds.3

Tár’s professional downfall is traced from the deceptively airy conversations she has with male peers and mentors about male transgression in the musical world to her overt pursuit of young(er) women. The film bluntly implies that pride comes here before a fall, and her seeming obliviousness to the way she is implicated by these stories represents a kind of half-baked confidence that her talent, or her prestige, or her gender will shield her from similar judgments. As if to literalize the metaphor, Tár’s final public disgrace is an inelegant tumble she takes while attempting to tackle the conductor who has replaced her in the performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5, which she has been rehearsing throughout the film. Her slip is comic, bringing her to her knees, and her sprawl is the antithesis of the economical and deliberate gestures of the conductor she once was.

But across the logic of this story of epic failure there’s another set of exchanges, less clichéd and algorithmically more queer. Tár’s final romantic pursuit is of the talented cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer). She first spots Olga in a public restroom, a space of anonymous mingling; as Lee Edelman has noted, the “water closet” is a historically freighted space for the expression of closeted desire, and Tár’s interest in the appealing young woman is incited well before Olga’s musical talent is made apparent.4 It is clear that while Olga’s talent might intensify or enhance Tár’s libidinal drive, it is not in any obvious way its cause. There’s no pretense that Tár’s pursuit represents a confusion between taste and desire; her interest is incited by a stranger, not a protégée. Olga’s audition mirrors the private encounter in the restroom. To ensure the anonymity of the performance, Olga is seated behind a screen, much as she was initially obscured by the restroom stall. Tár recognizes Olga’s shoes, adjusts her notes, and ensures Olga’s success in the audition. Tár’s secret interest in Olga is transformed through a public act of professional evaluation, performed in plain sight but secretively queer; the private, intimate scene in the restroom translated into the language of cancel culture.

These two scenes can be understood as in dialectical opposition: on the one hand, a scene of queer attraction that is anonymous and private; on the other, a publicly performed repetition of that scene that is explicitly about rank, evaluation, and boundary violation. But these two instances of sexualized encounter are also in conversation. The closeted nature of the “water closet” as the sight of nameless, fleeting engagement is evoked in its public reiteration through the audience’s “secret” knowledge that Tár knows very well the identity of the screened performer; Tár’s performance in the audition requires her to hold “the secret of having a secret,” the better to facilitate access to Olga. It is in these interstitial scenes of queer desire that Tár charts its affective and embodied field of negotiation between women.

Tár’s critique of cancel culture as cliché and performative is established in the Julliard master class where Tár lectures student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) on what she considers the vacuousness of his identity politics. Both sides are presented as unsubtle caricatures of their respective stances. Tár’s speech is too tired to be effective pedagogically; it’s clear she’s taken this l’art pour l’art line many times before and is blind to its shortcomings. Her lengthy diatribe is calibrated by the unruly metronome of Max’s nervously shaking leg, which becomes an exercise in anxiety for the audience. Tár’s generic performance of mastery culminates in the student calling her a “bitch” before storming off. While Max’s insult notes Tár’s gender, his quaking leg belies the implicit put-down. Tár, “die Vater,” is the faithful disciple of male mentors, and as such, her femininity (performatively disguised in the film through her costuming but abundantly visible in the performing body of Blanchett) paradoxically intensifies her relatively mild rebuke of her student and elicits his humiliated response.

Against this set piece, which formally introduces the pedagogical and hierarchical structures, and intergenerational relationships, that define the terms of professional miscreance, stands the film’s serial representations of private spaces. The difference is that in these scenes—Tár sleeping in a limousine seat, Tár in the airplane restroom, Tár in hotel corridors—the film brings audiovisuality rather than speechifying to the fore. This different system of representation is signaled in the film’s opening scene of Tár being filmed on a smartphone by her assistant, Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant). The interposition of the smartphone as screen between Francesca and Tár, and its inscription with the messages Francesca sends and receives, create a field of visual layering that iterates a series of distinct mediations: cinematic shot, smartphone video, text message. These concatenated mediations materialize the film’s interest in the blurring of boundaries: Is Tár an object, rather than a maestro? Is Francesca a perpetrator or a witness? Is she a cinematographer? A writer? This scene, which takes place on an airplane, reveals the infrastructural tissue of the grand career and foregrounds instead private, antiepical time. Against the overarching narrative of Tár’s downfall as a result of her sexual indiscretions, these minor incidents depict Tár herself as the quarry in another plot of surreptitious pursuit. Tár’s vulnerability is exposed by the actions of mentees, amanuenses, and her spouse, Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss). It is in these dynamics of surveillance, rather than in the larger frame of “cancel culture,” that the film traces Tár’s ignominious retreat from celebrity life.

The distinct tonality of Field’s casting of female actors is critical for a queer reading of Tár routed through these interstitial glances, pursuits, alliances, and improprieties. In the film’s lead and supporting roles, Field has cast actors from arguably the most influential and celebrated queer films of the last decade. Noémie Merlant, here a figure of ressentiment as the thwarted assistant, represented another artist in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019). In that film, Marianne (Merlant) finds aesthetic and affective succor in the development of her artistic practice as she paints, and paints again, a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) commissioned by Héloïse’s fiancé. Marianne’s ethical responsibility as artist requires her to transition from servant to interpreter of character, where the portrait itself comes to stand for a process of revelation. This revelatory mode of aesthesis grounds the artist’s and the subject’s sexual intimacy in nonhierarchical, “flat” relational exchange, interdicted but profound. Similarly, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Carol Aird in Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015) is palpably present in Tár. As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Carol relies on the dismantling of distinctions of class, age, and worldliness to create the possibility of an ethical bond between its lovers, Carol and Thérèse Belivet (Rooney Mara), whose intimacy follows a coup de foudre felt across the floor of the department store where Thérèse serves Carol.

Tár (Cate Blanchett) with student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) during a masterclass at Juilliard.

Tár (Cate Blanchett) with student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) during a masterclass at Juilliard.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Carol, both historical and visually opulent, occupy a position of prestige both within contemporary cinema in general and in queer film in particular. In Tár, their combination in the essentially hierarchical relationship between Tár and Francesca unexpectedly counters the utopian spirit of the earlier films. And whereas in Little Children and In the Bedroom Field posited orthodox constraints across unconventional relationships as a space for potential (if unrealized) disruption, Tár, in transposing masculine turpitude into its feminine folds, seemingly offers no similar escape route.

As Sharon Goodnow, Nina Hoss carries a complimentary set of associations as the third point of this queer casting triangle. The relatively minor and understated role of this profoundly recognizable star of German cinema—most particularly in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014)—as Tár’s partner nonetheless aligns Tár with the prestige of European cinema.5 This association contrasts with the reliance on vernacular American locations in Field’s earlier films but is required to suggest the worldly stage upon which the spectacle of Tár’s career, and career disaster, play out. It also reflects the film’s indebtedness to the style and aesthetics of European cinema. The trace, for example, of Michael Haneke is notable, although Tár’s punishment of the out-of-bounds teacher is more tepid than what Erica Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) receives in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1985 novel Die Klavierspielerin. Oliver Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) uncannily anticipate some of Field’s narrative, cinematographic, and casting moves in Tár: the transitive relationship between women as mentor and mentee, the use of smartphone conversation to gesture to the “outside” of the (doubled) screen and shot as a haunted space, and the transposition of non-European actors (Kristin Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz) to European settings.

Alongside the thematic of prestige that burdens Tár, Tár herself provokes a consistent suspicion of pretense. It’s not mere coincidence that Blanchett’s performance is praised not only for its artistic precellence but also for her capacity for deep imitation or mimicry: of the conductor, of the pianist, of the germanophone.6 Like Tom Ripley (along with Carol Aird, another queer invention of the mercurial Patricia Highsmith), Tár is associated with deception, a figure whose glamour is always just a whisker away from being revealed as something much less savory. This thematic of imposture, or passing, is finally brought into sight when she retreats to her family home and is revealed as not Lydia but Linda Tár, stripped of glamorous accoutrements and isolated in that same mundane American landscape that Field has otherwise made his specialty. But this revelation feels at best minor, because despite the ways in which Tár’s prestige is precarious, her talent and acumen are not. Instead, Tár paradoxically embodies the figure of an imposter while being the “real thing.” Prestige itself is a quality the film has solicited, in the mythos of Blanchett’s miraculous stickwork, fluent German, piano technique, in its very topic (the world of elite classical music), in Tár’s urge to align herself with masculinity and masculine prerogatives.

The German actress Nina Hoss as Tár’s partner Sharon Goodnow.

The German actress Nina Hoss as Tár’s partner Sharon Goodnow.

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In the film’s opening scene, Francesca shares the images of Tár dozing, slumped in her seat, with an unknown respondent, probably Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), whose accusations will set Tár’s downfall in motion. Francesca texts Krista that Tár is “haunted,” foreshadowing her former mentor’s decline and fall as a public figure. The less secure, mediated reality that Tár experiences as a result of her professional quandaries suggests a hauntological presence. These hauntings are part of the landscape of the interstitial, where Tár is differently available to nuance and unwelcome, destabilizing perceptions. From early in the film, Tár finds herself the witness of phenomena that are difficult to reconcile as everyday or usual: a glimpsed moment where she sees a figure in a room, a haunting scream that stops and starts. These sensory perceptions that come to mediate Tár’s physical environment can be read as a form of repressed consciousness coming to life—in particular, as guilt embodied by the voice and figure of fugitive women. Tár’s vulnerability to auditory and visual disturbance is an unwelcome aspect of her superior perception, an evocation of affect outside the range of orthodox sensations. She is haunted not only by the past or past misdeeds, but by the film’s drive to make everything familiar unfamiliar to her, everything homely, unhomely. Tár is systematically decanted from the heroic narrative she ascribes to herself, of unruly genius whose masculine identification fails to insure her from harm. Instead, she becomes increasingly incapable of distinguishing between herself and the space she occupies.

Here the film achieves a point of convergence between the pretense and prestige Tár represents, because this unfamiliar realm evokes the cinematic itself—that is, the material processes by which cinema creates a ghostly version of the “real.” From her initial comfort as the “star,” the object around which all events revolve, Tár comes to find her cinematic, mediated reality unreliable, and finds herself out of place in it. Tár has two homes in Berlin, but neither is homely or hospitable. It is in her modest, “private” home where she can work without audience that we see the first fraying of Tár’s composure when, relegated to the role of noisy nuisance by her neighbor, she responds by singing wildly to her own accordion accompaniment. This seemingly random instrument is a double for or repetition of one of the collection of objects that she finds still stashed in her childhood home, evidence of both Tár’s precocity and her imposture: the déclassé accordion embodies Linda, not Lydia. The accordion also offers a structural analogue to the film’s own distension, its pleated structure echoing the film’s pattern of infolding, where interstitial spaces of encounter and exchange between women are enclosed and instrumental in its grand narration of the downfall of a spectacular figure.

Tár’s lengthy coda finds her in Asia, conducting the ironically named Monster Hunter orchestra. Tár’s movement through these scenes creates an entirely new context for the worldly conductor. Tár learns that the river she is at one point traveling on is populated by alligators that were introduced for a “Marlon Brando” film, and didn’t leave, unlike Brando and the film crew. This etiolated reference to Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) reminds the audience that Tár’s relocation to Asia follows a familiar path that leads to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), a narrative of another epic downfall. Transition to a world beyond the cosmopolitan space the film has inhabited until now serves to triangulate its own dialectical structure. Tár, surprisingly, ends with Tár—Lydia—Linda—conducting the Monster Hunter orchestra with the same devotion she brought to the premier orchestras of the Western, classical world. Tár surprises us with this twist, making clichés of high culture visible by introducing another angle, another stage.

Tár’s coda offers another metric for evaluating the political questions the film raises. Rescaling the dynamics of abusive power to a global scene offers no obvious sequel to the experiences that have brought Tár low. As a conclusion, it is narratively open-ended, neither endorsing nor contesting the need for Tár to be taken out of the context of her celebrity-driven performing life, and proposing neither a happy ending for Tár nor a punitive banishment. Tár’s resurfacing as conductor may be a form of repetition, but, as with all the film’s repetitions, the new context suggests the possibility of change. As an abrupt recasting of the film’s conception of worldliness, demonstrating the sheer vacuousness of the “West” as concept and orientation, Tár’s coda imputes a relationship between the power dynamics that structure its gendered relations and the colonial context that is the substrate of all such relations. Where the narrative follows the conventional contours of a tale of moral turpitude, how Tár stages her own revival is situated in a future unknown.


In her Substack newsletter Paging Dr. Lesbian, Kira Deshler calls it a “perfect line of dialogue”—a “succinct” summary of both the film and the character of Tár. See Kira Deshler, “I’m Petra’s Father,” Paging Dr. Lesbian, November 27, 2022,


Blanchett’s character rejects the back formation maestra, which would, by recording her gender, make her even more singular. My hyphenated title is intended to create an emblem for the film’s shuttling between its two narratives of Tár’s singular self.


Thank you to Meaghan Morris for causing me to think about clichés.


Lee Edelman wrote of the “uncontrollable figuralizing” effected by homosexuality folded into the social field of heterosexuality, how it breaches the certitude of sex-segregated bathrooms, in Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), 168.


In Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor and former cabaret singer who undergoes plastic surgery after being disfigured in the camps. She is paradoxically assigned the role of impersonating herself—an impersonation desired by her husband, who, thinking her dead, asks her to pretend to be his wife. This vertiginous plotting is, of course, an homage to Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), where Kim Novak’s dual roles collapse into a form of recursive mirroring.


Sophie Kauer has praised Blanchett’s conducting as such. See Sophie Alexandra Hall, “‘Cate Blanchett Produces a Sound Some Conductors Don’t Come Close To’ – Tár Cellist Sophie Kauer,” Classic FM, February 20, 2023,