Why Cate Blanchett’s Lesbian Fandom Matters to TÁR
Victoria Wiet on the Competing Interpretations Enabled by Blanchett’s Sapphic Allure
In TÁR’S opening sequence, Lydia Tár is fitted for a suit modeled after the male conductors that dominate her record collection. Director Todd Field’s message seems clear: this is a film about a woman who aspires to embody masculine power. And thanks to headlines like Huffington Post’s “TÁR is a fascinating reflection of the Me Too reckoning,” many viewers might take these shots as foreshadowing how Lydia’s embodiment of masculine power is so complete that she has left a trail of female victims on her path to EGOT status.
When I first watched TÁR, these shots of Lydia at the tailor suggested something quite different. The general public might know Cate Blanchett as the greatest actress of her generation, but I see her as the Gen X Greta Garbo: a lesbian icon of unparalleled magnitude. Her penchant for wearing suits has become a potent symbol of her Sapphic appeal, with photographer Sarah Karlan tweeting “Every time Cate Blanchett wears a suit, somewhere a lesbian gets her wings.” Well acquainted with the fetishization of Blanchett’s suits, I took the opening sequence as introducing Lydia as a woman who possesses an unusual degree of erotic allure for other women—particularly millennial women.
The Sapphic fandom around Cate Blanchett is well enough known that it has become fodder for late night comedy, yet it scarcely comes up in the rapidly growing body of writing about the film. Even ScreenRant’s recent article about her lesbian icon status treats it and Blanchett’s latest film as separate topics. Mainstream reviews of the film hardly mention Lydia’s lesbianism, never mind the following Blanchett has acquired from playing lesbians.
Perhaps Blanchett’s cult status among young queer women online could be seen as distracting from TÁR’s serious exploration of contemporary celebrity, but for me, they’re essentially linked. TÁR is a film about interpretation, and Blanchett’s Sapphic allure enables two competing interpretations of Lydia’s relationships with her protégées: that they were obsessed with her to the point of committing unwarranted retaliation after being rebuffed, or that she took advantage of this obsession by turning sex into a condition of mentorship.
To keep both in play, TÁR finds a cinematic language for portraying the uniquely 21st-century fear of being unable to resolve the possibility of having committed career-ending transgressions that could be exposed through social media.
Given her career trajectory (and casting in The Aviator), it’s easy to see Cate Blanchett as the heir to another lesbian icon, Katharine Hepburn. But in the context of her lesbian appeal, I see her more as Garbo’s successor. Both seductively juxtapose cool masculinity (the angular face, contralto voice, and unyielding presence) and luscious femininity (the angelic coloring, sensual mouth, and moon-like eyes).
Todd Haynes highlighted this contrast in the film that skyrocketed Blanchett to lesbian iconhood, Carol (2015). Carol first enters the frame—and Therese’s gaze—decked out in the high femme accoutrements of a lush fur coat and salmon-pink cap, but she remains in Therese’s mind after leaving her leather gloves on the toy department counter. Lydia dons a more masculine silhouette, but her tailored button-downs are often rendered in plush flannels and softened further by cashmere sweaters.
But Blanchett is more than Garbo’s successor: she is specifically the Greta Garbo of the internet age. In a culture defined by intragroup lingo and the consumption of gifs, Blanchett’s name, roles, and image have become important reference points for young women online to articulate their desires and connect with the like-minded. The phrase “Cate Blanchett step on my throat” is perhaps the most common example of young women using metaphors of violence to articulate their erotic thrall to celebrities; Carol and Therese’s relationship provides a shorthand for finding potential partners on dating apps; and Blanchett’s gift for condensing intense emotion into a single gesture has led many, many gifs of Carol puffing her cigarette and touching Therese’s shoulders to circulate on Tumblr.Perhaps Blanchett’s cult status among young queer women online could be seen as distracting from TÁR’s serious exploration of contemporary celebrity, but for me, they’re essentially linked.
This obsessive consumption of Cate Blanchett’s voice and image came to mind minutes into my first viewing of TÁR. Just as the context of Blanchett’s lesbian icon status preexists the film, Tár’s devoted female audience is literally shown before we meet her public persona. In the film’s opening sequence, a montage shows Lydia Tár preparing for a live interview with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik as Gopnik’s voice introduces Tár over the soundtrack.
The first actual shot of Lydia and Gopnik on stage shows them out of focus, seen from behind a redheaded woman sitting in the back. In the next shot, Lydia’s assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) mouths along to the list of her boss’s accomplishments. Later, while talking to Tár at the reception, a female admirer flirtatiously refers to sleepless nights at Smith College.
As the film continues, two of these three young women end up retaliating against Lydia. The red hair belongs to Krista Taylor, an aspiring conductor—seen only in brief flashes—who, after struggling to get a job because Lydia won’t provide a good reference, makes “accusations” before ending her own life. Francesca quits after Lydia chooses another candidate for the position of assistant conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic.
The obvious interpretation is that Tár has cultivated an audience of female devotees she can coerce into sexual relationships by promising professional favors she won’t actually give. Yet when we pay close attention to the scenes where Lydia interacts with her subordinates, it becomes less clear that their erotic devotion, unlike Blanchett’s Sapphic fandom, is the result of abuse, or has at least been predatorily taken advantage of by Lydia. Her behavior might never have advanced beyond favoritism and handsiness, but this is enough to inspire fear in an industry leader paranoid about the security of her career.
As many critics have noted, TÁR treats Lydia’s transgressions elliptically by not actually showing the behavior attributed to her. It’s easy to fault this choice if we assume that the film’s concern is with how a woman came to be accused of sexual predation: by depicting accusations without evidence, the film could be seen as implying that at best, we can “never really know” what happened, and at worst, such accusations might be baseless.
But the more I watch TÁR, the more I come to conclude that the accusations against Lydia—not even raised until over two hours in—aren’t actually the film’s main concern. Instead, I see TÁR as being about the more generalized challenges of interacting with subordinates in a time of increased sensitivity to power dynamics.The more I watch TÁR, the more I come to conclude that the accusations against Lydia aren’t actually the film’s main concern.
This preoccupation becomes clear after Sebastian, newly demoted from his position as assistant conductor, insinuates that Lydia wants to replace him with “that girl,” Francesca. Sebastian’s insinuation clearly ends up burrowing in her mind. During a subsequent lunch with her mentor, Lydia asks: “Have you ever had an issue with a student or a colleague where that person may have misinterpreted your intention?”
How to interpret intention is a question that TÁR poses from the start. In conversation with Gopnik, Lydia claims that Leonard Bernstein inspired her to treat conducting as a search for kavvanah, the composer’s intent. Yet this search is far from easy, especially if, as she finds when studying Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the evidence of intention is absent or equivocal. Lydia’s intentions toward her subordinates are similarly difficult to parse—especially if you’re familiar with Blanchett’s Sapphic appeal.
Given Blanchett’s lesbian following, I took it for granted when first watching TÁR that it was Francesca who sought intimacy and Lydia who wanted to assert boundaries. In New York, when Francesca asks what her boss is thinking for dinner, Lydia places her hand on Francesca’s shoulder as she passes by and deflects, “Uh, no, I’m gonna stay and put this piano to good use.”
Later, when Francesca arrives at Lydia’s apartment unannounced and pleads “I need someone to hold me,” Lydia responds brusquely: “This isn’t the place, Francesca.” (Lydia’s manner changes once Francesca reveals Krista’s death, prompting the boss to draw her assistant into a comforting hug.)
In light of the accusations that come later, one could see Lydia as doing a kind of bait-and-switch during these moments: by refusing what she has offered before, Lydia reasserts her power and perhaps even gaslights Francesca into thinking that the erotic interest was all on her side. When Francesca stutters “it’s not that” after Lydia says “this isn’t the place,” perhaps she is correcting Lydia’s presumption that, as on other occasions, Francesca has entered her home for the purposes of sex.
The context of Blanchett’s lesbian fandom isn’t irrelevant to this interpretation, as Lydia could be seen as having manipulated young women with the force of her erotic appeal. But this interpretation assumes that the two women have in fact had some kind of sexual relationship, a premise for which Field’s film never furnishes evidence.
Blanchett is more than Garbo’s successor: she is specifically the Greta Garbo of the internet age.
Why show these awkward but ambiguous interactions rather than whatever past sexual relationship Lydia and Francesca might have had? Perhaps because these are precisely the interactions that an ambitious but anxious person would ruminate on. And Lydia is, of course, both highly ambitious and highly anxious.
The first clear shot of Lydia shows her backstage and chugging pills (later revealed to be her wife’s beta blockers), a motif that continues throughout the film. To a mind prone to catastrophizing, Lydia’s onscreen interactions with Francesca provide a lot of ammunition. Did my dismissive tone make my employee feel unvalued? Was that shoulder pat or hug felt as an invitation, or even a violation?
These questions would feel especially urgent to someone of Lydia’s position because of the high costs of a subordinate reading sexual interest into an action, as Krista Taylor’s death shows. It might lead to career-ending allegations of sexual misconduct, but it could lead to even more devastating consequences for the protégée. Given her charisma and handsiness, we can assume that, at the very least, Lydia sent Krista mixed signals. And if a vulnerable young woman with a crush mistakenly thinks her famous boss wants her attentions, then the failure to get a good reference could literally destroy her future.
Lydia doesn’t have to be a predator or a paranoid narcissist to be obsessed with the possibility of having hurt her subordinates. Given the theory that the film’s final act is Lydia’s hallucination, she might simply be prone to catastrophic thinking so severe that a pattern of ambiguous interactions leads her to fantasize about a dramatic fall from grace.
As a scholar and teacher committed to feminist analysis, I didn’t expect to be compelled by the way director Todd Field invites the viewer to question Lydia Tár’s guilt. Not only do feminist scholars and activists challenge the cultural tendency to not believe victims, but they have also worked to shift our attention away from adjudicating individual cases and toward the causes and effects of sexual harassment and violence.
If you’ve assimilated this worldview, you might finish TÁR wishing Field had decentered Lydia’s perspective by further developing Krista and Francesca as characters, or question the film’s revival of the lesbian predator trope when LGBTQ+ rights are increasingly vulnerable and men are far more likely to be perpetrators. And the film’s exploitation of Cate Blanchett’s erotic allure for young women could be seen as victim-blaming.
Under what conditions can the gesture that launched a thousand Tumblrs become an act of predation?
Yet, like Zadie Smith, I see TÁR as liable to the charge that it is “politically inadequate” while personally finding it “existentially rich.” For Smith, the film trenchantly captures what it’s like to be middle-aged, powerful yet poised to be displaced by a new generation. I’m Francesca’s age, which means I’m young enough to have witnessed Blanchett’s online fandom emerge but old enough to be concerned by how much the next generation live online and worried about the security of my career. The fears that haunt Lydia could obsess anyone in an age when protocols about speech are rapidly changing and most people carry a portable camera in their pockets.
Perhaps Field shouldn’t have chosen a subject matter as dangerously misunderstood as sexual misconduct for exploring these fears. But I think one can acknowledge this while still believing that TÁR does something important by illustrating how cinema as an art form can reflect and give order to the digital age’s paranoid habits of mind. Consider those shots of an iPhone using Live streaming to broadcast a sleeping Lydia and her New York hotel room to an unidentified iMessage correspondent. The phone intuitively belongs to Francesca, but the fact that the user remains out of frame opens the possibility that perhaps these shots represent Lydia’s fantasy that her life is being captured (and associated with disgraced tenor Placido Domingo) without her knowledge.
Consider also Field’s manipulation of scale and focus. In the scene where Francesca reveals Krista’s death, Field positions the camera slightly farther back than would be conventional in such an emotional scene, and each woman goes out of focus when she isn’t speaking. Their statements are clear, but their relationship is not; it feels like Lydia trying to scrutinize a poorly remembered interaction.
Finally, consider the film’s use of gesture. Lydia constantly places her hand on the shoulders, upper arms, and backs of her subordinates. Such touching can feel uncomfortable and even violating, but the repetition of this gesture in different contexts—Lydia touches female as well as male subordinates in this way—makes its precise meaning unclear. And it matters that this gesture is performed by Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett’s appeal lies in the air of dominance she exudes, symbolized by the gifs of Carol standing over and touching the younger Therese’s shoulders and exalted in the meme “Cate Blanchett step on my throat.” Under what conditions can the gesture that launched a thousand Tumblrs become an act of predation? This could be the question that vexes Lydia, and the film certainly poses it to the viewer.
TÁR isn’t the only “#MeToo” story about queer women that could or should be told onscreen. Queer women like Merlant’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire costar Adèle Haenel have played a vital role in speaking out about domestic violence and sexual misconduct. But I can’t imagine Todd Field’s timely exploration of the challenges of interpreting intraprofessional power dynamics working with a male conductor or even a female one not played by Cate Blanchett.