The Bitter Tears of Lydia Tár
Key words: women, desire, capital, film
When Petra puts on her wig, Lydia drives her daughter to school in a Porsche. When Petra tells her friend Sidonie about her painful marriage to her ex-husband, Lydia hides in her spare flat in Berlin to write her memoir. When Petra lends money to her mother, Lydia fires one of her subordinates. When Petra screams at her assistant/server Marlene, Lydia gives her partner anti-anxiety medication. While Petra begs, Lydia lures.
In one of the first scenes of Tár (2022), its eponymous protagonist, the conductor Lydia Tár, compliments a woman on her red Hermès Birkin bag. In addition to her accessory, the stranger has a large diamond ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. They talk about music and look into each other’s eyes, until their encounter is broken by Tár’s assistant. The subjects and objects of desire are set in that scene. Later, when the conductor gets to her sleek, elegant house, we see her throw a red Hermès Birkin bag on the armchair. She embraces her partner Sharon and tells her that it was a gift and that if she wants it, she can have it. Nonchalance, caretaking, and compliments are acts of destructive seduction leading straight into the powerful arms of Lydia Tár. Fashion designer Petra von Kant, the main character of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), lived in West Germany fifty years before Tár. She wakes up one morning in her room to her server Marlene opening the curtains, allowing a stream of light to hit her face. She phones her mother from bed and lends her money for a trip to Miami. She orders Marlene around, smokes a cigarette, and drinks orange juice. Later that day she gets a visit from her friend Sidonie who introduces her to Karin, a young newcomer from Australia. Karin visits Petra in her room the next evening wearing a dress made of gold sequins, chains, and draped ecru fabric. Petra wears a pearl-embroidered bra-top and a narrow blue tulle skirt. She can barely walk, so she mostly lounges. They look like ancient statues and talk about life. That’s what we live for, to fight for a place for ourselves … I believe you have to have humility, to bear what you know. I have humility in my work or in respect to the money I earn or the many things that are stronger than myself, says Petra. To Karin, “humility” is a strange word: it reminds her of kneeling and praying. Marlene, the third statue dressed in a long slim black gown, briefly and silently inserts herself between the two women and serves them a tray of fruits.
Infatuated with Karin, Petra suggests that she should start modelling and confesses her fondness for the beautiful things in life the job could give her: art, big foreign cities at night, music. The fashion designer also offers the younger woman financial support for her career in hopes that they could experience life together. The fashion designer wants a relationship of equals, she desires a symmetry of immaterial interests despite the material inequality between the two women. She introduces it as a foundation for their union, yet remains blind to the consequences of such a dynamic. Her capital makes her the party with unlimited possibilities to desire whatever and whomever, seemingly without compromising her independence. This is what clouds her judgement
Lydia Tár, not unlike Petra von Kant, lacks foresight into the consequences of her actions. Tár tells the story of a successful woman and her fall from grace due to her narcissistic and despotic behaviour. Lydia Tár—a world-renowned classical music composer and principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic—teaches classes at Juilliard where she violently criticises her students; she’s writing a book about herself; she flies private. She claims authorship of the success built by hundreds of other musicians. Seemingly, she is a master of her environment, confident and dedicated to her craft. The story centres on her relationship with work and the people around her, mostly her subordinates and mostly women.
Tár’s attitude is subject to criticism from both her work environment and the viewers of the film. The Guardian’s writer Xan Brooks questions the judgments of her character in his review titled Monstrous Maestro: why is Cate Blanchette’s cancel culture film Tár angering so many people? He suggests it is the main protagonist who alienates the audience and is responsible for the box office failing of the film. In the eyes of many, critics and classical music industry professionals alike, Tár is considered anti-woman, too abstract, audience-resistant, unlikable, and a missed opportunity (Brooks). Brooks laments this kind of criticism and is in favour of characters that expose the viewers to discomfort. Tár is, in fact, often reviewed in light of the 2017 #MeToo movement that saw men in high positions exposed and penalised for committing sexual violations in the workplace. Usually this behaviour goes unpunished due to the financial and symbolic capital those men enjoy. Is Tár’s character an example of such a story? Is this the sole reason why Tár makes some viewers uncomfortable?
Lydia Tár’s presence unravels as a display of the power of capital that is a historically masculine signifier. She tells us this herself. She drops off her daughter, incidentally also named Petra, at school and goes to confront her daughter’s bully in the school yard. I’m Petra’s father, she says and threatens the other girl. It’s also visible in how she carries herself. We follow the impeccably dressed, often in a tailored suit, conductor through the halls and offices of the Philharmonic. She disregards and manipulates those who she deems to be below her. Simultaneously she is charismatic and seductive towards her female co-workers. The aesthetic around Tár, the way she appears dangerously masculine, makes her attractive. Here lies the film’s inescapable claim that complicates the didactical interpretation of Tár as a “female” version of #MeToo: power is a collateral of desire.
In one of the first scenes of the film, Petra von Kant makes herself up with maquillage and the story of her ex-marriage. The woman expected mutual respect and emotional honesty, yet resentment and violence built up when she started to earn more money than her ex-husband. The imbalance of capital dictated a competition in their relationship. He lost her respect, he disgusted her, he stank of a man when she understood that he could only love her if she was below him. You are with someone and you want to say something, but you are afraid. Or you’d like to be affectionate, but again you are afraid. You are afraid of losing points, of being the weaker one, she tells Sidonie. Desire for the other turns into desire for self-preservation; desire for having the upper hand. In love, one briefly forgets that selfishness, as the emotion obscures the danger of material imbalances. Sidonie, who listens to Petra’s story says: The whole thing hardened you. I was always suspicious of hard women. To which Petra answers, I seem hard only because I’m using my head. Yet it is this rationalistic—read: masculine—and pragmatic approach that leads Petra to forget the dangers of desire.
We don’t ever see men on screen. They call Petra on the phone, although we don’t even hear what they say, they figure only in her past or in her letters. Seemingly she is the man, absolute in the way she assumes the mastery of her room, her work, and her Marlene. She’s operating with a surplus of means which she shares with her mother - whom she calls a whore for living off her father’s dime in a fit of rage -, her daughter, and eventually Karin. Her occupation as a fashion designer puts her in a position of power as the active producer of the concept of femininity. According to Thorstein Veblen, who theorised on the position of women in the 19th century bourgeois society, by adorning her body, the woman becomes a representation of her husband’s capital (Veblen 119). She shows a vocation of a sex object (Beauvoir 571). In the case of Petra, it is her own capital she represents through conspicuous consumption and embodiment of the idea of what a sex object looks like. She not only creates but also wears clothes, making herself self-contained and autonomous as the subject identical to the object.
Evening garments, according to Simone de Beauvoir, are a toned down, repressed form of public eroticism. Petra puts on her evening make-up with her morning cigarette and a glass of orange juice. The fashion in The Bitter Tears is excessive, attention-seeking, and ornamental—in the absence of any male characters, it signifies beauty and agency through the consumption of one's own capital. Petra eliminated men from her world but the influence masculinity has on the economy of desire is still active on screen. The masculine capital is mediated through aesthetics. It is located in the objects surrounding the woman: fashion, make-up, and the Nicolas Poussin’s painting Midas and Bacchus. The artwork shows a decadent scene consisting of nude bodies. At its centre is a phallus looming in the background of Petra’s attempts to secure Karin’s love. The fashion designer wants to remain in the sphere of erotic desire but also tries to emancipate from heteronormativity and patriarchy. Off screen it is Fassbinder, the male director who famously engaged in sexual relations with both actors and actresses starring in his films, who takes the credit for her attempts.
On screen, the objects are expensive, surfaces are flat and shiny, relationships are vertical and monochrome, clothes are made from cashmere and silk. What Lydia Tár wears could be called inconspicuous consumption in the lexicon of fashion, yet in its intensity it feels radically unobjectionable and dogmatic. Everything is black, based and cut after a man’s suit. The ornament, theorised by Adolf Loos to be a lower, primitive form of culture, creeps like crime into the sleek world of Tár in the moments when she loses control over her surroundings but mostly over herself. This form of quiet wealth and elegance is a signal of sophisticated taste with its roots in the ideology of European, specifically German and Austrian, modernism. Minimalism and utilitarianism over ornament and undisciplined, animalistic—erotic—impulses.
The first ornament that was born, the cross, was erotic in origin. The first work of art, the first artistic act which the first artist in order to rid himself of his surplus energy, smeared on the wall. A horizontal dash: the prone woman. A vertical dash: the man penetrating her. The man who created it felt the same urge as Beethoven, he was in the same heaven in which Beethoven created the ‘Ninth Symphony’. (Loos 20)
It is not a surprise that this ornament-lacking aesthetic has the viewers (myself) and the maestro herself in a chokehold. She’s breathing Europe and wealth and at no point are we to suspect that something is amiss, that her obsession with purity isn’t innate. Née Linda Tarr, Lydia aspired for success in the world of high art from her childhood bedroom in a working class house in Staten Island, New York. Desire dictated through class could be the key to her fascination with Olga, the new cellist in the philharmonic. The young woman is Russian, impossible to embarrass, and direct. She lives in a practically derelict building. She orders two baskets of bread against Tár’s cucumber salad, and first shashlik and then veal. Nothing about her consumption is subtle and neither are her facial expressions while playing, described by Sharon as being a bit much, looks like she’s on the verge of climaxing. The aesthetic difference between calculation and impulsivity is what makes the relationship unequal, leaning in favour of the cellist. The conductor repeatedly tries to become closer with Olga, yet she is uninterested in anything other than playing. Tár’s desire remains unanswered.
Tár is a balancing act of inappropriate and appropriate workplace relations. Sex is never realised, only implied. The cleanliness of aesthetics is alluring, but suppresses that which could be explicitly erotic, leaving it to the realm of imagination. Tár’s conduct promises sex but never delivers—at least to our eyes—because it cannot stand the flexibility of inconsistencies and inequalities of sexual relationships. She wants to see herself only in one position, as the dominant in every area of her life. The aesthetic facade seduces but is simultaneously cold and resistant to contamination. This control over urges and instincts allowed the conductor to assume and uphold her domineering position. We witness desire but not its fulfilment, which makes power relations explode into insanity—it is the people Tár exercised her superiority over that in the end can rid her of her capital.
The conductor takes herself seriously till the very end of the film, which finds her fleeing to Southeast Asia. She’s conducting a commercialised, kitsch, low-class, parody of an orchestra playing a video game soundtrack. It’s a non-western–other–context. In terms of taste and status it is radically different to what she was used to in Berlin but closer to what her birthplace predicated. Tár, unable to pause and stop working, conducts the piece to perfection, I’m certain.
The fashion designer does not do her own work, but orders Marlene to sketch her designs, bring her food and drinks, and type on the machine. In fact, maybe it is the server who is the author, the maker, and the creator of the fashion she makes in the name and image of Petra von Kant. She is actively engaged with the world through the labour that she performs as the subordinate. Her boss’ life seems to be confined to her room and her own discourse. Petra talks relentlessly and what brings her down is Karin, who goes against what the fashion designer expects. Capital has the power to alienate from other forms of consciousnesses, making them unbridgeable. Maybe this clarity makes the relationship with Marlene work. Maybe that’s why Petra initially desires Karin, who lacks economic and cultural capital. Maybe that’s why Karin leaves, once she gains it and reconnects with her estranged husband who becomes her new protector.
The server at no point speaks but bears insults from her boss with a sombre face. The fashion designer insists that the other woman enjoys that kind of treatment. She only wears black like a negation of Petra and floats in and out of sight upon her master’s requests. The being of Petra seems predicated upon the being of Marlene—what joins them together is the desire to reproduce the difference of dominance and submission.
Karin lies in Petra’s bed and reads a magazine. She ignores Petra who brings her a drink and confesses her love, asking for a reciprocation. Instead, Karin tells the other woman about the man she had sex with the night before and mocks her. Angry and hurt to be put in competition with a man, Petra cries and screams at Marlene who works in the background. To Karin, the fashion designer became synonymous with her own capital, a means to an end—this is what led to defeat and disappointment in the relationship. The object and subject lines become explicitly blurred by the fashion designer herself. Perhaps the only relationships that are satisfactory are the ones which are transparently transactional. Marlene’s desires are seemingly fulfilled through degradation. She only leaves when Petra offers her equality in the work they could do together. The server silently packs her things. Amongst them is a gun she might or might not use to further engage with the world.
Both films tell us about how power is available to women, and what it does to them. It is the fusion of women and power that portrays how they attempt to be more than they are, they not only become but transcend their social ontology. Petra and Tár are both women, both creators and centre figures in their universes with other people depending on them. Their downfalls start when, inevitably, their capital is not enough to secure their independence. Both try to escape patriarchal power dynamics but fail, because there is more to patriarchy than just heteronormative sex. It is a way of performing dominance that seeps through into the objects, aesthetic experiences, workplaces, and relationships. The two films evade the fable, exposing desire instead. Desire is what grants and takes away the power from the protagonists. Petra exposes hers when she puts two female mannequins in bed together after Karin leaves. The fashion designer thought she could erase the inequality of sex if she herself entered the dominant—masculine position, but the on-screen presence of the ornament and decoration betrayed her. Towards the end of the film, she gets rid of all the furniture in her room and wears a turquoise ruffled dress accessorised with a telephone. Heartbroken, she drunkenly throws herself around the floor on a white furry rug. The rug is all that is left from her decadent consumptionism and it portrays the excessive surplus of desire. Tár believed in differentiating herself from the inequality of sex and separating herself from her lower-class roots by keeping a cold, minimalist facade of wealth and success. Yet, she could not keep her relationships professional: her wife is her concertmaster, her assistant seems to be infatuated with her and she tries to seduce the new cellist. Both Petra and Tár portray the emptiness, the expectation, the contamination, the giving up and getting down of desire perfectly. They both understand the transactionality of relationships: while Petra begs, Lydia lures.
Brooks, Xan. “Monstrous Maestro: Why Is Cate Blanchett’s Cancel Culture Film Tár Angering so Many People?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Jan. 2023, www.theguardian.com/film/2023/jan/16/monstrous-maestro-cate-blanchett-cancel-culture-tar.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex.Vintage Classics, 2015.
Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Ariadne Press, Riverside, 1998.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Weronika Wojda is a writer and a researcher from Warsaw, Poland based in Amsterdam. She has completed a BA in Philosophy from the University of Warsaw (2021) and an MA from the Critical Studies department at the Sandberg Instituut (2023).