It would be difficult to name another actor other than Cate Blanchett who could carry the emotional weight of the movie Tár. She has taken all film – and not just this movie- into another dimension.
Photo: Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) gives an interview to Adam Gopnik (himself) at The New Yorker Festival via Tár (2022), Universal Pictures
08 March 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Tár is the first film I have watched from beginning to end in one sitting since the start of the pandemic.
Originally I had not been very optimistic this would be the case, given the usual ‘cancel-culture’ press about the film and the fact that it runs 2h 38m.
I have to admit, I have not always been a huge fan of Cate Blanchett’s work. But her acting in the role of Lydia Tár was astounding. At the very beginning, she establishes the ground rules for the character and then takes the viewer on a roller coaster ride of emotions and raw nerves.
Everything is portrayed externally, yet the viewer feels as though they are actually passengers of what turns out to be a downward spiral.
She astounds in scene after scene, to the point that you not only forget you are watching a movie, but indeed watching a fictional depiction and not a documentary.
I think that is why some people are so peeved by what they see on the screen. The character is based on a real person or persons to some degree, but her portrayal is so overwhelming we cannot help but feel that is witnessing the real person. (See below for the time What Gets the Pros Riled Up About Tár?)
The film alternates between short set pieces and longer single, shots and everything works. Yes, it is disjointed and yes the lead character can be prickly and confused and, yes, even abusive, but that is what humans do. And again, whether it is an accurate portrayal of the reasonable person is not for me to say, and in the end, it does not matter to me.
But clarity, in the story or characters, was not the ambition of the film.
Lydia is riding on a handcart to hell, fed by pills (seldom mentioned in reviews, I might add) and a past that keeps creeping up behind her.
It all scares the hell out of her. And us.
And before we know it, we are released back into reality. Although you cannot help but feel that perhaps your sense or perception or reality may have been permanently altered in those two and a half hours.
James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Renowned musician Lydia Tár is days away from recording the symphony that will elevate her career. It is a 2022 psychological drama film written and directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchett. Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a renowned conductor who is accused of sexual abuse. The supporting cast includes Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, and Mark Strong. Tár premiered at the 79th Venice International Film Festival in September 2022, where Blanchett won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress.
As the maestro heading into crisis in Todd Field’s outrageous tale, Blanchett’s performance pierces like a conductor’s baton through the heart
A second viewing has swept away – with hurricane force – the obtuse worries I had at the Venice film festival about Todd Field’s entirely outrageous, delirious and sensual psychodrama starring Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, the orchestra conductor starting to unravel and unhinge. I had misgivings then about the climactic element of melodrama – which I now see as a deliberate and brilliant stab of dissonance, brilliantly cueing up the film’s deeply mysterious and surreal final section.
No one but Blanchett could have delivered the imperious hauteur necessary for portraying a great musician heading for a crackup or a creative epiphany. No one but Blanchett has the right way of wearing a two-piece black suit with an open-necked white shirt, the way of shaking her hair loose at moments of abandon, the way of letting her face become a Tutankhamun mask of contempt.
Her performance will pierce you like a conductor’s baton through the heart – although the real-life conductor Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has complained about the apparent parallels between her own life and Tár’s, and there has never been any suggestion of wrongdoing in Alsop’s own career.
Tár is imagined to be principal conductor of a major German orchestra, addressed by colleagues as “maestro”. She is passionate, demanding, autocratic, with a rockstar prestige and an international touring lifestyle approaching that of the super-rich, and is married to her first violinist, played by Nina Hoss, with whom she has a child.
But there are problems in Tár’s life. She runs a mentoring scholarship programme for women, administered by a tiresome, oleaginous would-be conductor, played by Mark Strong, and there are rumours that this is a source of young women with whom Tár has affairs. Her assistant, played by Noémie Merlant (another would-be conductor) appears to be someone else she is keeping on an emotional string, and she is being stalked by another former mentee who has become obsessed with her; Tár has furthermore conceived a tendresse for a new cellist.
Meanwhile, her guest masterclass at Juilliard goes sour when a young student, identifying as Bipoc pangender, presumes to dismiss Bach on ideological grounds.
But this movie is not about anything as banal as “cancellation”. Tár suspects that there is something wrong: she is twitchy, paranoid and insomniac. We know from the outset that she is effectively being spied on. There are strange sounds, intrusions and things out of place.
And the music itself amplifies the violence just beneath the surface. It could be that Field has fallen under the spell of the maestro himself, Austrian director Michael Haneke, with the refrigerated sleekness of the film’s look and the ideas about revenge-surveillance, the return of the repressed and the tyranny and cruelty in the classical music tradition.
Tár has a job in which hubris pretty much comes with the territory. She has invented herself through conducting: no other profession and no other kind of musical career could have worked. My second viewing made me see that part of Tár’s loss of control is due to her intense reaction to Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which she wanted to perform with her protege: the extravagance and the derangement of the music. It resonates with her and with us.
Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár | Courtesy of Focus Features
Todd Field’s 2022 film Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, has generated an immense amount of press, an amount that’s out of proportion to the number of people who’ve actually seen it. The New York Times estimated that the film cost at least $35 million in production and marketing expenses, while its box office take has been roughly $15.5 million worldwide. The waning pandemic continues to keep people out of theaters, but Tár has been streaming since Nov. 15 and has been out on DVD/Blu-ray since Dec. 20.
Of course, film critics across the country have all reviewed Tár, but beyond that, two New York Times opinion columnists, the novelist Zadie Smith, Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, and conductor Marin Alsop have also had their say. The unusual range of commentators owes to the fact that the film’s titular character, Lydia Tár, is a renowned conductor and, when the story starts, the chief conductor of an orchestra in Berlin. (Presumably this is the Berlin Philharmonic, but it’s not stated explicitly.)
In the world of the film, that appointment followed stints at The Cleveland Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony, once known as the Big Five. Tár also holds a doctoral degree in musicology from the University of Vienna, and she studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein. We find all of this out in the film’s opening sequence, read by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, playing himself while interviewing the fictional Tár. She’s also a composer, but we never hear more than a few notes of her current project.
The questions and controversies around Tár are all over the place: Is it a horror film? Is it a comedy? Is it all, or partly, a dream? Is it about “cancel culture”? Is Tár imagining things? Is it regressive? When, exactly, does it take place?
What there’s not much doubt about is the sheer quality of the acting and filmmaking. Blanchett gives a riveting performance as the elusive, mercurial conductor who is simultaneously as self-confident as one needs to be to lead an orchestra but also quietly panicking as her privileged life and lifestyle come under threat.
Tár’s past and present are catching up with her, for it becomes apparent that she’s a bully to her orchestra and to students in a master class, that she’s gaslighting her spouse (who is also the concertmaster of her orchestra), and that she has a history of sexual relationships with young female conductors whom she’s supposed to be mentoring. Over the course of the film, her life disintegrates. Sharon, her spouse, realizes the extent of the lies. One of the conductor’s former mentees, Krista Taylor, behaves erratically and then commits suicide. It becomes evident that Tár has actively undermined the student’s career.
The film focuses strongly on Tár and her story, but not to the point where you could write a documentary narrative to go with it. The other actors give strong performances as well. Nina Hoss, possibly best known to U.S. audiences from her roles in A Most Wanted Man and Homeland, plays Tár’s violinist wife with a (justifiable) air of suspicion and discontent. You definitely wonder what’s been going on in their relationship, and for how long.
Noémie Merlant is Francesca, a young conductor serving as Tár’s personal assistant but getting little help from Tár in her own conducting career. Her suspicions grow throughout the film, and eventually she abandons Tár after realizing Tár’s role in the increasing distress and eventual suicide of Krista. Mark Strong plays Eliot Kaplan, an obsequious investment banker and amateur conductor — and funder of a conducting fellowship program — who is obsessed with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and with Tár’s score and markings for the work.
Field’s script is elliptical and suggestive, virtuosic in how it cuts back and forth among different incidents, presenting short vignettes rather than a straightforward narrative. The viewer needs to assemble all of these fragments to arrive at something resembling a coherent story. Tár’s gaslighting and lying don’t help, nor do some incidents that seem inexplicable, but you’re enough outside her head that it’s usually clear when she’s lying or dodging the truth. Florian Hoffmeister’s coolly vivid cinematography and Monika Willi’s editing capture the slippery nature of the plot perfectly.
For all of the technical and dramatic excellence of Tár, I was largely repulsed by it for two reasons: the film’s many outright errors concerning the orchestral world and the character of Tár herself.
Films about classical music go back to at least the 1930s. The light and charming One Hundred Men and a Girl, from 1937, starred Deanna Durbin as the daughter of an unemployed trombonist and the conductor Leopold Stokowski, whose character almost accidentally finds himself conducting an orchestra of the unemployed. Stokowski would go on to shake Mickey Mouse’s hand in the cartoon classic Fantasia. Tous les Matins du Monde (All the mornings of the world), from 1991, put the viola da gamba front and center and made the composers Marin Marais (portrayed by Gérard Depardieu) and his teacher Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) as close to household names as any 17th-century French composers will ever be.
Exaggerations and fantasies are common in films about composers and classical music. There’s the potty-mouthed Mozart of Amadeus, and there’s Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, described by Wikipedia as a “surreal biographical musical comedy” about Franz Liszt. But while nobody expects Tár to be a documentary, it gets so much wrong that either it’s deliberately distorting reality for the sake of the plot or nobody bothered to do the research.
Some of the errors are deeply misleading and downright offensive. Take this section of the interview with Gopnik:
But as to the question of gender bias, I really have nothing to complain about. Nor, for that matter, should Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, Laurence Equilbey, Nathalie Stutzmann. There’s so many incredible women who came before us, women who did the real lifting.
That’s fascinating. Who for instance?
OK, sure, first and foremost, Nadia Boulanger. That would be the happy example. The sad one would be Antonia Brico, who by all accounts was an incredible conductor but was ghettoized into the nonglamorous status of “guest conductor” and essentially treated as a dog act.
That Boulanger and Brico worked hard to conduct orchestras is indisputable (Brico’s career included starting her own ensemble!), but it’s absurd to claim that the current crop of women conductors has nothing to complain about. We live in a world where only five of roughly 130 professional German orchestras are conducted by women. Only two major American orchestras have female music directors: the Atlanta Symphony, led by the French conductor and contralto Stutzmann, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, where Falletta has been music director since 1998.
Worldwide, only a handful of women lead major orchestras or opera companies, while some men conduct two major organizations, sometimes thousands of miles apart. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel, Jaap van Zweden, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Klaus Mäkelä.) It’s simply wrong to state that women don’t have reasonable complaints about gender bias in how conductors are hired.
Then there’s how Tár behaves toward her orchestra. She talks down to them in rehearsals. She undermines the audition process, which is set up to hide the identities of those who are auditioning, and handpicks a cellist she finds attractive. She then imposes the cellist, who has barely become an orchestra member, as the soloist in the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she decides will be the companion piece for a recording the group is about to make of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
An orchestra completing a major recording project would never leave such a decision to the last minute, nor would a Mahler cycle include an Elgar recording. One of the Mahler song cycles would be the typical choice to fill out such a set.
I spoke with Falletta about Tár, which she had seen in the theater not long after it was released. As a conductor and music director since the 1980s, and as a woman who has seen many changes in the profession, she offers a special perspective on the culture of conducting. She confirmed that this isn’t how 21st- and late-20th-century conductors behave.
“The rehearsals are not run in a typical way. [Tár is] brusque. Her comments are sometimes hurtful. The European setting probably makes it more believable for a U.S. audience. But the thing that puzzles me is that the conductor is seen as all-powerful, but it’s not like that anymore. There’s power, but the conductor has a tremendous responsibility to the players, the organization, the audience. The film isn’t about how this really works.”
She went on to note that conductors can no longer follow the models of Arturo Toscanini, who had fits of temper during rehearsals, or Herbert von Karajan, but Tár seems to. “She’s almost unknowable, with armor that you can’t penetrate. That was the old-school conductor, too — never questioned, never open to criticism.” In the United States, “corporate culture changed; there was more team building, more open communication within organizations. This happened in orchestras, too.” There’s an expectation of collaboration between conductors and orchestras.
The Berlin Philharmonic, the model for Tár’s orchestra, is self-governing, and this means that the musicians choose their own chief conductor. In the United States, professional orchestras are unionized. A conductor violating norms the way Tár does would not last long in either location and, in fact, probably wouldn’t be hired in the first place. Word gets around about how conductors behave.
Falletta discussed the complicated and not very believable timeline of Tár’s career. She has been with her orchestra since 2013, and the film takes place approximately in the present. She holds a doctorate, which would typically take at least five years of study, and she has had jobs at five orchestras before her present job.
This in itself is unrealistic; even if Tár had been an assistant conductor at the first two of the five, music director contracts typically run five to seven years, and conductors often remain in a single position for 15 years or more. Given that Tár also appears to be in her 40s, there’s no way she could have gotten her Ph.D., worked at so many orchestras, and studied with Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990. Falletta noted that “at the lowest point in [Tár’s] life, she goes home [to her childhood home] and starts watching Bernstein. He was not her mentor but her idol.”
Falletta confirmed the unrealistic nature of other plot points in the film, such as the soloist in the Elgar concerto. “This is something I’ve never seen. When an orchestra member plays a solo work, it’s always the principal, not a section instrumentalist.”
Then there’s the film’s fetishizing of Tár’s performing score. Kaplan, the would-be conductor, is clearly modeled after Gilbert Kaplan, a wealthy man who obsessed about Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. He studied the work, made donations to orchestras that enabled him to conduct it, and even recorded it.
The fictional Kaplan wants to see Tár’s score for her performance markings, and she won’t show him. Said Falletta, “Her secrecy with her scores bothered me. She’s accepting Eliot’s largesse, and he wants to discuss Mahler with her, but she just won’t help him. She seems unwilling to share. She’s staying in expensive places. He pays for her travel. She has an odd friendship with him. Who steals the score [which disappears before the planned concert/recording session]? Was it her partner? Her assistant? Is it Eliot? [Field] doesn’t seem to want to make this clear.”
Not only that, as Falletta further noted, performance markings are extremely personal for each conductor. They’re notes that help conductors achieve their personal interpretation of a work, but that interpretation has to grow organically from each conductor’s understanding of the music. Even if Kaplan got to see the score, he wouldn’t be able to recreate Tár’s interpretation, nor would her markings necessarily be meaningful for his own performance.
Another point of discussion about the film is what genre it is and what it’s really about. Some commentators have suggested that it might somehow be a comedy, but I just can’t see it. The earliest scenes, which show you aspects of the conductor’s personality, might seem dryly witty to some, but for me, the only funny moment was a single inside-baseball reference to another conductor’s “nostalgia for pre-war Kalmus miniature scores.”
Falletta agrees that Tár feels more like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or similar psychological suspense films. Over the course of the story, Tár disintegrates. She hears strange noises in her apartment and screaming while she’s out on a run. She follows the new cellist into a decaying building, gets lost, falls, bruises herself, and then claims she was attacked. After she’s fired from her job, she storms into a performance that Kaplan is conducting, makes a tremendous scene, and has to be removed by security. “Other films where people disintegrate like this — usually it’s because of alcohol or drugs.” Falletta said. “Here it’s something different.”
What’s different is that Tár’s own actions have brought her down. She is losing everything she has worked for because of her bullying treatment of everyone around her: her partner, her students in a master class, her assistant conductor Sebastian (whom she forces out), a small child who has bullied Tár and Sharon’s daughter, her conducting student Krista.
Unlike so much in the film, this is true to life. In the last few years, conductors Charles Dutoit, the late James Levine, and Daniele Gatti all lost jobs because of alleged sexual abuse. Singers David Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Vittorio Grigolo, and Matthew Stump have faced similar allegations, with Daniels and his husband formally indicted on charges of sexual assault. William Preucil, former concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra, and Stephen Shipps, violin professor at the University of Michigan, were both fired for sexual misconduct, and Shipps was charged with two counts of transporting a 16-year-old girl across state lines to have sex with her.
So that part of the film is, on one hand, very realistic; you might lose your job if you’re credibly accused of sexual assault or other sexual misbehavior, particularly if you’re charged with a crime. Among the many allegations of such behavior in the music world, I have yet to see a woman accused, so it does seem bizarre that Field landed on a lesbian predator for this film. Alsop was appalled by this, not least because Tár seems to have been modeled on the former Baltimore Symphony music director, a lesbian who is raising a child with her partner, an orchestra musician — and against whom no such allegations have ever been raised.
Even with all of these inaccuracies, the film has much to offer. Falletta said that she was “dazzled” that someone had made a film of this cinematic quality about classical music and featuring such great music. Blanchett has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Field is up for Best Director. The film has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography.
So go see Tár. You might wind up tearing your hair out, you might be repulsed by the title character, and you might be thrilled by the sheer quality of the film, all at once.
Critics are taking Todd Field’s film at face value, but the final act suggests that nothing is as it seems.
Lots of writers and critics disagree about Tár, Todd Field’s film starring Cate Blanchett as an art monster and orchestral conductor whose past catches up with her. Is the movie “the best film to date on ‘cancel culture,’ ” or is it “a regressive film that takes bitter aim at so-called cancel culture”? Is Lydia Tár clearly portrayed as an “abuser,” or is Field “stacking the deck in the character’s favor”? Is Lydia Tár a real person or a fictional character?
There is something, though, that everyone seems to agree on, and it’s what happens to Lydia Tár. (Spoilers ahead!) The conductor’s transgressions—real, exaggerated, or invented—are discovered, and they are her downfall. She loses her position, her foundation, her fame. She never gets the chance to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the performance that would be the capstone to her career.
Cancel culture (or maybe it’s just justice) has reached out and found her, and by film’s end, she has hit bottom. Google “Tár ending” and you’ll find several pieces explaining the “bitter joke” of the movie’s final scene, Lydia conducting video-game music for a convention full of cosplayers in an unnamed Southeast Asian city. The game? Monster Hunter. The monster has been hunted.
However, I think all of this is wrong, or at least arguable. We may see all those things on the movie screen, but I’m not convinced that’s exactly what happens in the final third of Tár. None of these articles address what is aesthetically the most puzzling aspect of Tár. Very few writers have taken up the uncanniness of its final act, the supernatural elements Field introduces, and the hints—more than hints: the big, broad pronouncements—that a great deal of what we’re seeing on the screen might just be happening inside Lydia Tár’s head.
The final act of Tár is, I think, so heightened and weird that it basically doesn’t make sense if you try to read it literally. But perhaps because the movie’s cultural questions are so fun to wrestle with, or because Field’s attention to sociological realism in the rest of the film is so acute, many viewers are determined to do so. But when I finally watched Tár, it was the movie’s spookiness, and the uncertainty that spookiness casts over the film, that stuck with me. I think Todd Field is doing something entirely different from what almost every writer so far has thought he was doing. Field “moves smoothly from dry backstage comedy to something like gothic horror,” A.O. Scott wrote in a typically insightful review that still takes much of Tár’s “comeuppance” and the movie’s “ragged, wandering, superfluous denouement” at face value. Let’s explore the gothic horror of Tár.
I’m certain I’m not the only one to write about this—it’s a big internet—but after a lot of searching, all I’ve found is this tweet, from New York Times writer Joe Bernstein …
It was all in your head! is, of course, an often disappointing story construct. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it really doesn’t. I’m not ready to say that the final section of Tár is, as Bernstein believes, “a kind of hallucination or dream of personal disgrace, which therapy tells us is secretly pleasurable.” But I will go to the mat to say that reading the “plot” of Tár literally is a mistake. For long stretches of the film, we have exited the realm of realism and are firmly in the world of the supernatural. Tár is not truly a cancel culture movie. Tár is a kind of ghost story, in which we’re so deeply embedded in Lydia Tár’s psyche that nearly everything that appears onscreen is up for debate.
The ghost, of course, is that of Krista Taylor, Lydia’s former protégée, with whom Lydia is accused of sleeping and who, we know, was blackballed from conducting jobs through the emails Lydia hurries to delete. Even before Krista’s death by suicide, she haunts Lydia: We see her long red hair in the audience for Lydia’s conversation with Adam Gopnik.
We’re led to believe she sends Lydia a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge—a book inspired by Sackville-West’s love affair with a woman who threatened suicide after their separation—which Lydia stuffs into the trash in an airplane bathroom. And just about an hour into the movie, as Lydia returns to her pied-à-terre after lunch with her mentor, look who’s waiting for her, tucked behind the piano:
In movie time, this is just as the cellist Olga arrives in Berlin for her audition, and riiiight about when Krista dies. It’s also about the time Lydia starts hearing mysterious noises, some explicable (a medical device in a nearby apartment), some not. Who set her metronome a-ticking? Who’s that knock, knock, knocking on her door? Who’s that scream, scream, screaming in the woods?
And then comes the visit to the young cellist Olga’s grotty Berlin apartment building, where, she says, she’s staying with friends. Bernstein and Harris are right, I think, to view this as a pivotal moment in the film. Lydia, waiting in her car, finds Olga’s little stuffed animal. Behind her we see Olga walking into the entrance of the building. A silver SUV drives past, and—
In the reverse shot, no time seems to have passed, but Olga has vanished, and Lydia is already out of her car. Observed now by a gently drifting handheld camera, Lydia walks through the passageway and into a courtyard full of trash, where she hears, far away, a woman singing. We follow Lydia on her descent down the stairs, into a dripping, poorly lit underworld of unoccupied rooms. Deeper and deeper she goes, the pitter-patter of little steps echoing behind her, making her glance over her shoulder again and again. And then she turns, and—
Is that the black dog of fate? The black dog of depression? An actual, literal dog—but freaking gigantic? Where has Olga gone? What is this infernal place? Is this a dream, or a horror movie, or is it Tarkovsky’s Stalker? Lydia flees, and face-plants at the top of the stairs.
After her partner, Sharon, cleans up her face, Lydia gets up to comfort her daughter, Petra, in the middle of the night. And if you look closely, you’ll see, motionless in the dark corner of Lydia’s bedroom, nearly unnoticeable at the back of the frame, a red-haired woman: Krista.
We are no longer watching a movie whose style is that of, as Slate’s Dana Stevens put it, “cool, keenly observed detachment.” The movie has swerved, in these scenes, into the uncanny. Are we seeing Lydia’s dreams? Her greatest fears? Is she lying unconscious in a Berlin courtyard, her face being eaten by a giant black dog? Field never entirely reveals his hand, but the movie has transformed. Or perhaps another way to say it is that we’ve seen the movie injured, made just slightly shaky where once it was immaculately composed.
Lydia, too, is injured. Not just her face. Her right shoulder burns: “Notalgia paraesthetica,” her doctor diagnoses, which Lydia mishears as nostalgia. But perhaps the past is still with her, in some way: The nerve disorder notalgia paraesthetica presents as a phantom itch, an “unreachable itch,” not unlike the memory of one’s own guilt, or a sound you can’t unhear.
It’s that right arm, Lydia tells Adam Gopnik at the film’s beginning, that marks time. “Right from the first moment, I know exactly what time it is,” she says, with supreme confidence, “and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.” In the film’s final act, Lydia loses that right arm, loses her confident control over time, and a film that was up till now conducted at adagietto, like the slow movement of Mahler’s Fifth, picks up.
A video of a charged encounter at Juilliard goes viral, oddly edited from multiple perspectives, even though no one in that rehearsal room seemed to have a phone out. A story in the New York Post accuses her of grooming multiple young women. Moderato. Her performance score for Mahler’s Fifth disappears without explanation. She loses the support of her foundation, her access to a private jet. Allegro.
We are in Lydia Tár’s point of view now, in her subjective space, and all is unraveling with shocking speed, including possibly her mind. Protesters picket her poorly attended reading in New York. Olga abandons her at her hotel for someone more fun. Sharon kicks her out and withholds their daughter. She loses her position, loses her chance at the Fifth. Vivace. And now, somehow, we are backstage at the climactic performance, and somehow Lydia is there too, standing next to the trumpeter while he fanfares. He pays her no mind, not even as she rushes the stage, tackling the hack they’ve brought in to replace her.
More than one critic has noted how unusually melodramatic this moment seems. Maybe what they mean is that it’s unbelievable. And maybe we are not quite meant to believe it.
This is, after all, what she long dreamed would be the crowning moment in her career. It is for this sublime symphony that Lydia has worked, fought, seduced, acceded, betrayed, loved. And now a future exists in which she never has that opportunity, in which Mahler’s Fifth is missing from her career just like its score is from her shelf, all thanks to a ghost from her past. What might a glimpse of that possibility do to a mind like Lydia Tár’s?
At a massage parlor in that unnamed Asian city, she stands before a chamber, the “fishbowl,” in which a score of young women await selection, an overt enactment of the subtle power dynamic Lydia has been taking advantage of for years. “You just pick a number,” the receptionist tells her. Who is the woman who, in that dreamlike moment, looks up, the woman who makes eye contact with Lydia and sends her into the street, retching?
No. 5. If it all seems too neat to be real, perhaps that’s because it is.
But what does it all mean? What really happens? Is it all a dream? I admit that I don’t know, nor do I think Todd Field wants us to “know.” Tár isn’t a puzzle box, where the answer clicks into place at the end and we understand, at last, who Keyser Söze was. Think of this film, instead, as a journey through a haunted forest, like the ones the Grimms wrote about—like the one where Lydia hears that scream. We wend our way down ever-darker paths, becoming less and less certain what is real and what is not. By presenting the reality of Tár as increasingly subjective, Field is demanding that we question everything we see on that big screen, and receive the film as a mix of plot and psychology, incident and nightmare—all coming back around to the life, the dreams, and the fears of the incomparable Lydia Tár.
“The Five is a mystery,” she tells Gopnik in that same early conversation. Gopnik asks if she has a different interpretation of that symphony’s mystery than did her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. And Lydia responds with a reference to her ethnographic fieldwork in the Amazon, making a distinction about the relationship of the past to the future that I think matters for this interpretation of the film.
“The Shipibo-Conibo,” she says, referring to the tribe she studied—a real tribe, one known for the maze-like patterns on their pottery, replicated by Krista on the book she gave Lydia—“only receive an icaro, or song, if the singer is there on the same side of the spirit that created it. In that way the past and the present converge—the flip sides of the same cosmic coin.” She contrasts that belief with Bernstein’s belief in teshuvah—atonement, but also return: “the Talmudic power,” as she puts it, “to reach back in time and transform one’s past deeds.”
When Lydia Tár’s one chance at Mahler’s Fifth comes along, she will not be there to receive that song; she is, after all, no longer on the same side as the spirit that’s been haunting her. But neither can she imagine atoning, or transforming her past deeds. Perhaps what we see, in the avalanche of calamity that concludes this remarkable movie, is all that the monster can imagine instead.