This piece was originally published after Tár’s theatrical release in October. We are recirculating it now that the film is available to stream on Peacock.
Tár is the funniest movie of the year, though you may not key into director Todd Field’s bleak sense of humor until you arrive at the grand, most obvious joke at the end. By then, the disgraced conductor played by Cate Blanchett has left her glamorous life in Berlin and New York behind after reports of her grooming students broke in the press, and she has taken up a new job conducting an orchestra in Southeast Asia. (The dialogue doesn’t specify where she is, though performers from the Siam Sinfonietta play in the film.) Lydia seems disdainful of her new surroundings, but she slowly settles back into her old routines. She studies a score, lectures her musicians, and even goes to a massage parlor where she chooses a masseuse from a selection of young women with the implication that she may again be taking sexual advantage of the less powerful. Then we get to her big return to the podium. She prepares the orchestra and then screens descend behind her. A CGI flag is projected onto them. We hear serious video-game-style narration, and as the orchestra plays, we see the crowd is full of people cosplaying as characters from the video-game series Monster Hunter.
What a place for Lydia Tár to end up! Given how much she reveres the western canon and sneers at conventional “robots,” the term she uses for people who don’t get her genius, we can assume she would hate video games and sneer at their music in any other circumstance. (It also seems that Field watched footage of actual concert performances of the Monster Hunter soundtrack; they seem like a pretty fun time, all things considered.) The film starts at the New Yorker festival and ends at a concert of video-game music. If you’re invested in the contrast between high- and lowbrow culture — the film certainly is, devoting much of its run time to the specifics of Lydia’s rarefied world, from her concrete-chic Berlin apartment to her suite in the Carlyle Hotel — you get a stark sense of how far her career has slid. It’s a bitterly funny moment and a hell of a kicker for her journey.
But if we see almost all of the film’s action from Lydia’s perspective (aside from a few text messages), the movie pushes you to question her view at all times. To her, this may be an embarrassing gig, but she’s still in charge of an orchestra and in a position of power relative to the people around her. Is this an appropriate cosmic punishment? Is it too much? Too little? She’s working, which is the thing she loves to do most but also the thing that grants her the power she abuses.
Then you have to consider that this all may be part of Lydia’s larger comeback scheme. Earlier in the film, she meets with a crisis-PR firm of some kind, and a younger male employee suggests she needs to create a new narrative around herself. Perhaps going off to conduct a new orchestra is part of that narrative and this is only a show of humility. The film reminds you that Lydia began her illustrious career by studying the music of an indigenous group in the Amazon, and one suspects she may be trying to use the orchestra at the end in a similar way: to boost a career that will curve back toward western music. The fact that Tár itself uses a faceless nonwestern location for its ending, however, doesn’t give it a lot of grounding for some strong anti-colonial argument. It’s a little too infatuated with Lydia’s perspective to do that.
We also have to acknowledge that Lydia Tár isn’t even the character’s real name! When she goes back home to the suburbs, we discover, thanks to her brother Tony, that her real first name is Linda, and if you look closely at her old diplomas, you can see her last name is actually Tarr. She remade herself somewhere along the way; she’s probably hoping to restart her career with her video-game orchestra in the same fashion. The movie also mentions that her birthday is coming up, so the specter of age also lingers around her, the notion that you can constantly re-create yourself, as she has, up to the point where it all catches up to you. What then? By the end of the film, Lydia is “canceled” in that she has been removed from the highest echelons of western classical-music performance, but she’s already trying to transform again and perhaps climb her way back. The extended coda suggests that such cancellations are really impermanent, that this one is less a full stop than a pause in Lydia’s career. She’ll never stop trying to remake herself.
But what about all the people who surrounded her demise? It’s still hard to know exactly who sent the text messages we see at the start of the movie, for instance. I’ve debated this with some of my co-workers, but my best bet is that because we see the Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) livestreaming Lydia’s reading of her book, Tár on Tár (that title is the funniest recurring gag), near the end of the film, she’s probably the one who did the texting. She might have seemed innocent to Lydia earlier, but Olga clearly knows more about the conductor’s reputation than she lets on. She was probably texting Francesca (Noémie Merlant), Lydia’s former assistant who suddenly leaves after not getting a conducting job in Berlin. Francesca kept her emails from Lydia’s student who had died by suicide and might have been involved in bringing the story to the press’s attention. (Francesca also could have had a phone inside that Juilliard master class where Lydia berated a student and from which doctored footage later leaked.) Those initial texts on the plane include a line about how “s was with her this morning,” probably referring to Sharon (Nina Hoss), Lydia’s wife. Sharon proves by the end of the movie that she knows Lydia’s behavior well and was willing to go along with it until it threatened their family and daughter. Could she have been working with Olga and Francesca to undermine Lydia? Who, after all, was getting all those cryptic gifts for Lydia and drawing those mazes on her stuff? Just the one former student, or multiple people acting together?
It’s easy to fall into conspiratorial thinking because the movie encourages you to think as Lydia herself would. She believes that all the people around her exist to be used and that everyone else would do the same to her if they could. Even before we get a sense of her sexual misconduct, we can see that all of her relationships are transactional, as Sharon puts it. Note how Lydia uses Mark Strong’s Elliot Kaplan for his money and private jet in exchange for dribbling bits of her musical insight in his direction. (Notably, she doesn’t seem to have given him enough early in the movie and has to fly commercial, but then she flies private on her return trip as the pressure on her increases and she’s leveraging all she has, and then it’s commercial back to Berlin after her downfall.) Lydia is enough of an asshole that the people around her could easily have all just had enough and then scavenged what was left of her career. Kaplan, after all, seems perfectly happy to have taken her Mahler 5 notebook and used it himself for the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert before she tackles him out of revenge. Or was he part of the scheme against her all along, and did Sharon or Francesca steal the notebook for him in advance?
There’s much to be uncertain about by the end of Tár in different beguiling ways. That’s mostly because Lydia herself is such a mutable figure, absolutely vile from one angle, understandable from another. She’s clearly a problem, a monster who has clad herself in all the opinions and attitudes that would let her succeed in classical music, but what exactly can you do with that problem once it exists? Tár doesn’t seem to be sure, but it’s interested in how the typical course of comeuppance for a figure like Lydia is both insufficient and a little absurd. At least those Monster Hunter fans are in for a hell of a concert.
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