The Bitter Társ of Petra Von Kant
5 min read

The Bitter Társ of Petra Von Kant

I only watch three-hour movies about classical musicians behaving badly, which is why I haven't seen a movie since 1986. Given this, it was sad that I disliked Todd Field's Tár, a film with a lot to offer (Cate Blanchett being clipped and brittle in tailored suits) and a lot of problems (a steadfast refusal to engage with its actual subject matter). Maybe in another thirty-five years, someone will adapt Dave Malloy's Preludes, and I can see a movie again. We can only hope.

In Tár, Blanchett plays a celebrity conductor at the top of her game, a great artist and lesbian icon. Blanchett imbues Lydia Tár with an effortful glamour and a palpable sense of power. She is reliably great at portraying characters who are beautiful in-universe, which is less nonsensical than it sounds. Generally, one premise of a movie star's acting is that this is an ordinary person. We are asked to suspend our disbelief, and presume that this character's life hasn't been marked and changed by their beauty. Blanchett, though, can give us a character who is beautiful and knows it. I'm not talking about the clichés about beautiful women, that they're proud, vain, manipulative – although Lydia is all of these things, albeit for different reasons. No, I'm talking about showing us the hunted quality of the great beauty, of the person who has always been pursued.

It's that sense of pursuing that both defines and undermines this film. Lydia, you see, is a bad actor. She pursues young musicians, beautiful women in their twenties – or rather, she invites them to pursue her; her seduction technique is all about magnetism, about drawing close, and then about the unpredictable granting and withholding of favors to keep everyone at the perfect distance. Tár chronicles Lydia's fall, precipitated by the suicide of one of these lovers/mentees, a woman who has begun stalking Lydia – pursuit done wrong, not the way Lydia ordered it at all.

The fall itself is told from oblique angles, never directly. We have only a vague sense of what Lydia has done, and often an even vaguer one of what's happening now. She is constantly depersonalized, derealized, dissociated. She doesn't understand that she's facing consequences. She doesn't believe that other people are real, and this is partly because she doesn't believe that she herself is real. It's tough to recognize others' humanity (Lydia's favorite insult is "robot") when you see yourself from a third-person perspective. All of these ideas are purposefully explored through Blanchett's performance, through the film's washed-out cinematography, and through a series of shots that cling to Blanchett's perspective from odd angles, like the way a camera holds a character in a video game. It's not a coincidence that the film ends with a humiliated Lydia directing a concert of game music at a fan convention, the only work she can now get. She's been moving through the world using the WASD buttons for her whole adult life.

As I said, there's a lot here to admire. As I also said, I didn't like the film, and this is mostly because it takes an absolutely absurd perspective on Lydia's young accusers, and on young people in general. I get what Tár is doing here. The dissociation, the intentional direction of the pursuit – obviously. Your heroine is too self-absorbed, and too full of self-loathing, to notice the people she's hurt. But why are these people drawn in such broad caricature, in the scenes when we see their objective selves? Why do they do things like scrawl RAT on Lydia's manuscripts, edit videos of her teaching to make her look like an overt racist and harasser, send friends creepy footage of her room with sneering asides? Why are they so often shown as disembodied, a pair of hands holding a phone? Why is Tár shot like a horror movie with Gen Z as the monster? Above all, why is every accusation leveled at Lydia false, from the classroom racism to being the direct cause of her mentee's suicide? There's plenty of real stuff to accuse her of, so why does the film's whole universe actively participate in her obsessive sense of persecution?

The inescapable conclusion, at least for me, is that the film does argue that Lydia's unfairly persecuted, not because she doesn't do bad things, but because it's impossible for a great artist to do enough bad things to justify depriving humanity of their gifts. By definition, any persecution of a genius is unfair.

There's one early scene I've often seen critics mention, in which a young student at Julliard hesitantly tells Lydia that Bach doesn't speak to them as a BIPOC pangender person. Lydia proceeds to give them a full-throated defense of the canon – what one critic called a "majestic gutting of twenty-first-century self-regard." It's remarkable that the only trans person in the film, and the only person of color with a speaking part, exists solely to be put in their place. It's even more remarkable that Tár uses this moment to lay out its premise – Bach is great, Tár is great, and that means that they've transcended both identity and morality; they have become unmarked, surnames only, like Mozart, like Lizst. Max, the student, only has a first name. They can't transcend anything – the scene's punchline is that, after complaining about the white masculinity of the canon, they call Lydia a "fucking bitch" – and are never seen again.

Max's youth is presented as an inherent quality, one that they won't outgrow. This is also true of all the young adults in the film; they're obsessed with justice and identity, and all they want to do is drag down the canon, represented by Lydia, to the level of one of their incomprehensible MMORPGs. The tragedy isn't the ruined careers Lydia leaves in her wake, the contributions to art that she's averted. The tragedy is video games.

I wrote this essay from the title first. I thought I'd end up writing about The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, a film that I strongly suspect was a major influence on Tár. The two share a good deal: German settings, manipulative lesbian artists who seduce younger women and exploit the talented assistants who eventually leave them in spectacular fashion, a heavy focus on style and tailoring, Power Dynamics, and even the name "Petra," which in Tár is reassigned to Lydia's daughter.

Honestly, though, all I have to add is that Petra Von Kant is the film I wanted Tár to be, and also think it should be. In Petra, we know exactly who did what, and to whom, and that's why we're able to think about Petra – a flawed, cruel, in many ways disastrous woman – as a complex character who has to be lived with. You can sit with the ambiguity of a person, but you can't sit with the ambiguity of a plot. Tár's refusal to show us what's happened (only to show us how Lydia feels, and what Lydia stands for) is a real abdication, and it makes the dethroning at the film's center feel as weightless and empty for the audience as it does for the heroine.