Describing classical music composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) as an overachiever is an understatement. Having already achieved EGOT, she is also the lead conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, a guest lecturer at Juilliard and the head of a foundation that provides opportunities for female conductors. She’s also working on an autobiography and has begun practice for a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth symphony. When the latter is complete, Lydia will have recorded all nine of Mahler’s symphonies with the same orchestra, equaling an achievement by her mentor Leonard Bernstein.
Outside of her professional life, Lydia is in a committed relationship with Sharon (Nina Hoss), the first chair violinist of the Berlin Philharmonic, and they share custody of adopted daughter Petra. Lydua flies on private jets between New York and Berlin, buys bespoke suits, dines at the finest restaurants, stays in the best hotel suites and has a personal assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who handles her every need. As shown, Lydia’s undeniably privileged and exclusive lifestyle is one that would be foreign to most moviegoers (myself included).
In the movie’s bravura opening salvo, Lydia handles a staged interview with a reporter from the New Yorker like the seasoned professional she has become. She answers questions about the nature of conducting with an amazing level of insight, effortlessly drawing upon her encyclopedic knowledge of historical and contemporary female conductors and composers throughout. Lydia’s performance in the interview shows herself to be extremely knowledgeable, confident, opinionated and occasionally charming. As Tár soon reveals, the Lydia behind her public persona is much more complex than the accomplishment-driven machine she appears to be.
Behind the scenes, Lydia casually leverages her power and influence to get what she wants, particularly to engage in affairs with subordinates with the promise of career advancement. She will suffer fools when it benefits her, but she has no problems laying waste to those who offend her artistic sensibilities. For example, Lydia lays waste to Juilliard student Max (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) for his choice of pieces to conduct (a modern piece of atonal weirdness) and his “allergy” towards the white, German, cis gendered male composers of the past. Yes, they may have not been perfect citizens, but the music they created is undeniably great. In Lydia’s eyes, holding men like Bach to account for moral turpitude is ridiculous when compared to the contribution they’ve made to culture.
Lydia’s belief in genius-level immunity is put to the test when a former student of hers named Krista commits suicide. She and Lydia had an affair that ended badly, and Lydia subsequently blocked Krista’s placement at any orchestra. Lydia attempts to cover her tracks but Krista’s sad fate follows her like a ghost. Additionally, a video of her treatment of Max surfaces on social media, causing organizations affiliated with Lydia to reevaluate her involvement. Unfortunately for Lydia, there’s nothing she can do to stop the reckoning her own abusive behavior has set into motion.
At its core, Tár is a clinical dissection of what it means for a world-renowned artist (or celebrity) to be brought low as a result of their actions. In today’s society, we categorize this sudden and dramatic reversal of fortune under “cancel culture”. While Lydia certainly deserves her fate, Tár pushes further by comparing her predicament to figures of the past with similarly problematic reputations. The peccadilloes of Bach, Beethoven and others were shrugged off or laughed at for generations; shouldn’t Lydia’s indiscretions be treated likewise?
Tár is more than a simple narrative about a powerful and arrogant person who is undone by their own indiscretions. It’s an unabashedly cerebral movie that builds its story with layers upon layers, the combination of which is equally engrossing and mysterious. It offers an unapologetically dizzying take on the world of classical music. Todd Field’s directorial choices will immediately be recognized and appreciated by aficionados of Stanley Kubrick. Lydia’s downfall is depicted in a way that would feel right at home with the paranoid thrillers of the Seventies and haunted house movies of any era. Finally, there is enough symbolism (metronomes, mazes, reflections) to keep film students busy writing papers for the next decade.
Tár is intimidating in a way that few movies attempt. I would liken it to accidentally walking into an advanced placement class on your first day of high school. Like its eponymous character, the movie is also funny, horrifying, inscrutable and brilliant. It’s the rare movie that asks the audience to lose itself in a completely foreign world and patiently observe its anti-hero while she moves like royalty within it. Then, gradually and deliberately, the movie reveals what it has to say about her. Tár questions our feelings towards genius, asking whether accomplishments should ever excuse the personal shortcomings of the artist. The movie features a career-capping performance from Cate Blanchett whose unsympathetic Lydia is an unlikable but incredibly compelling protagonist. Producer-writer-director Todd Field has crafted another piece of stunning film making, and I would hope his next film arrives sooner than the eighteen years between this one and Little Children. You may need to see Tár more than once to fully appreciate it, but you won’t regret it. Highly Recommended.
Tár is a movie that rewards repeat viewings. Not because it’s a puzzle movie, but because it contains so many narrative layers. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to fully appreciate it with only one viewing, because you certainly can. Tár is principally an expose of a woman at the top of her field who is brought down by her own selfish and abusive behavior. The story of her downfall is very similar to how several powerful men were brought down via the #MeTo movement. Charting Lydia Tár’s comeuppance (or instant karma) is only one layer of the movie, however. Writer-director Todd Field has constructed his narrative like a gemcutter, providing the movie with different facets through which to view and interpret the events that take place. I was surprised at what I noticed after just two viewings. As much as I want to watch this movie another two or three times before writing this analysis, I don’t have as much time as a professional film critic does. Please consider the following analysis as the best I can do under the circumstances. I’m sure I’ve missed something, or several things about this incredibly rich movie.
(From here on out, to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the movie’s eponymous character as Lydia and the movie itself as Tár. If Lydia were an actual person, I certainly would never discuss her or her exploits with this level of familiarity.)
Immersion into an unfamiliar world
I decided to begin here because of how much information the movie communicates in the first thirty-five minutes. Field places us into the world of Lydia, a famous classical music conductor and composer. Field communicates the lavish nature of her world through a montage of “day in the life” images. She gets fitted for a bespoke suit, commutes across New York in a limousine, has a personal assistant, eats lunch at a posh restaurant, leafs through portfolios of sheet music and uses what I would assume to be the best pencils money can buy to make notes. The interview initially heard on the soundtrack reveals that she is an EGOT, and Tár shows us what the life of an EGOT probably is like. Put simply, Lydia lives a life of privilege, leisure and comfort.
Within the same timeframe, Lydia has a staged interview with a reporter from the New Yorker, flirts with a young fan afterwards, meets with fellow conductor and financial supporter Elliot Kaplan and teaches a class at Juilliard. For each of these interactions, Field composes the conversations as you would hear them in real life: without explanations or asides that would be helpful to the average moviegoer. Since Lydia’s realm of expertise is one that few moviegoers would understand, why does Field deliberately throw them into the deep end without a life preserver?
I’m not a classic music aficionado, but I was able to understand some of the dialog. I’ve heard of Leonard Bernstein, Lydia’s mentor. I’m also familiar with Bach, Beethoven and Mahler. Other topics that Lydia weighs in on, however, I have little knowledge of. If I wanted to know more about the historical or contemporary female conductors Lydia mentions during her interview, I would need to Google them. For example, Marin Alsop, a contemporary conductor Lydia mentions, is an actual person. Phrases like “tempo primo” and “molto ritardando” were completely lost on me, however. Watching Tár made me feel like I was reading a doctoral thesis in an unfamiliar field without the footnotes.
With this in mind, I believe that Field wants to overwhelm the audience for several reasons. He wants his movie to be as authentic as possible so that we will see Lydia is the undisputed leader in her field, even though we probably won’t have the slightest idea of what she’s talking about. Additionally, Lydia’s power over people is rooted in her authoritative knowledge of music. Field shows this by having her weigh in on numerous topics with a level of comprehension that is impressive. Finally, Lydia is also unafraid to put her brilliance on display at any given moment. Lydia’s intellect is her sword. Test her and she’ll cut you down to size in an instant. Within the first half hour of the movie, Tár has shown us that Lydia is someone who is brilliant, powerful and arrogant.
The density of Tár reminded me of reading a novel by Thomas Pynchon. In a similar fashion, you enter a narrative with little to no backstory as to what is happening. Some elements of the story you may already be familiar with and others you won’t, but you are expected to follow along regardless. The experience can be daunting but is ultimately rewarding if you stick with it. Keep in mind that being overwhelmed with information is easily remedied in our world. If you want to understand what material Field has used to formulate Lydia’s personality, you can look up French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully on Wikipedia, watch Bernstein’s twelve-minute performance of Mahler’s “Adagietto” on YouTube, search the internet for information on kavanah and teshuva and so on. If not, just accept that Lydia is brilliant and move on.
Succeeding in a Man’s world
Lydia spends time during her interview explaining how challenging it has been for women to be recognized as equals to male conductors. She mentions how women were ghettoized by the lesser title of “guest conductor” and considered to be “dog acts”. Tár shows how Lydia shapes her physical appearance so that she will be taken seriously in a field that has been traditionally dominated by men.
Lydia de-emphasizes her femininity by eschewing dresses and colorful clothing. Instead, she wears dress shirts, slacks and overcoats. Her preferred color scheme is somewhat basic, a combination of blues, blacks and whites, with little to no patterns. She hides (or disguises) her physical attributes by wearing oversized shirts or overcoats, to the point where the material bunches around her shoulders and arms. In terms of makeup, Lydia prefers a natural, understated look. The most feminine aspect of Lydia is her long, golden-brown hair.
Blanchett has always had a beautiful, lower-register voice. And her American accent in Tár is impeccable. But in Tár she alters her delivery slightly, adding timber to it so that it sounds forceful and commanding yet a bit monotone. It’s a voice that’s used to giving orders and expecting them to be followed without question.
Behaviorally, Lydia acts like a man who knows he will not be challenged when he wields his power. When she interacts with someone who sings her praises, like New Yorker interviewer Andrew Gopnik, she is friendly and charming but does not hesitate to talk over him when she feels he is talking above his station. For colleague Elliot Kaplan, she tolerates him because of his financial support for her foundation but she refuses to see him as a peer. (Her physical attack of him when he conducts her Mahler symphony with her orchestra underscores how she sees him as inferior.)
Lydia also has what I would consider to be a stereotypical male attitude towards her relationships with women. Lydia openly flirts with her subordinates to get what she wants (Francesca). She also uses her position of authority and influence to grant privileges to those she wants to have sex with (Olga). She treats her wife badly by flaunting her dalliances openly, ignoring the adage that wives will accept affairs so long as they don’t know the details.
An example of Lydia’s masculinity is her confrontation with Max in front of his classmates. She mocks the piece he’s chosen to conduct and ridicules him over his “allergy” with Bach. She proceeds to obliterate him by providing even more examples of conductors who faced the art of “problematic” composers head-on and were better for it. At several points during her verbal assault, she physically jabs in the air close to his face. In the end, all Max can do is call her a bitch and walk out. Just like a man, Lydia is an intense person who is not above reducing a person who offends her to rubble when the victim deserves it.
Additionally, when Francesca tells Lydia that Krista has committed suicide, Lydia tells her that Krista was a demanding person who was not quite right. In emails sent to Krista’s prospective employers, Lydia describes her as a “troubled and unstable young woman”. The irony of Lydia belittling another woman the same way that men have done wasn’t lost on me. She may not have specifically said that Krista was emotional or hysterical, but she certainly implies that Krista was both and that her behavior was not to be taken seriously.
By depicting Lydia with masculine traits, Field is confronting how audiences excuse or forgive morally and ethically dubious behavior from a man. Audiences watch anti-heroes like Don Draper, Tony Soprano and Walter White with rapt attention, reveling in their “bad boy” behavior. Lydia turns this notion on its head by making a woman the narcissistic predator.
Acknowledgements (and the lack thereof)
The movie begins with a black screen and the voices of Lydia asking a member of the Shipibo-Koibo people in Peru to ignore the recording equipment and sing. When the singing starts, the end credits are displayed but neither Lydia or the singer are shown. Adding to the mystery is that the credits run backwards. A cryptic dedication to S.R. and W.F. is followed by acknowledgements to buildings, people, locations, song titles, technical people from skilled trades up to the cinematographer. They conclude with a mention of Todd Field as writer, director and producer. (The acting credits appear at the end of the movie.) What is Field saying with this curious choice?
As someone who’s worked in front of and behind the camera, Field knows that making a movie requires the dedication of hundreds of people, many of whom are in unheralded roles like key grip, best boy, etc. By recognizing these people at the beginning, Field is acknowledging that without their hard work and commitment, his film would never have gotten made or be as good of a film as the one we are watching. Field may be the film’s producer-writer-director, but seeing the endeavor through to completion “takes a village”, as the saying goes. He sublimates his ego to instead honor everyone that helped him realize his vision. Through this simple act of humility, Field acknowledges something that Lydia either never understood or no longer believes: that success never comes in a vacuum. Everyone who is successful had the support of countless others who helped them along the way.
People like Lydia believe that the triumph of their innate genius was inevitable. She would have become an EGOT with or without the support of anyone else. While it may be true that Lydia was gifted, it is also true that she would not have reached her fullest potential without the help of many people, including her parents, teachers, professors, musicians, benefactors, critics, her spouse, various assistants and so on. She has been called a genius so many times that she fully believes it and that her success was never a matter of if but when. In Lydia’s mind, she alone manifested her dreams into reality. The help she received from the people around her was nice, but it was her genius that ultimately triumphed. Field’s little trick with the credits shows that no matter what his protagonist believes, he feels the exact opposite.
An Ode for the Maestro
Tár looks and feels exactly like a movie Stanley Kubrick would have made, if he were still alive. Field was an actor in Eyes Wide Shut and probably observed Kubrick’s every move on the set of that movie. As someone who has long appreciated Kubrick’s movies, I couldn’t help but notice how uncannily similar Field’s lighting and staging choices were to Kubrick’s movies.
Like Kubrick, Field prefers to film his actors in brightly lit environments with medium and long shots. Most of the scenes in Tár are constructed with minimal edits or even a single take. These directorial decisions give the audience the chance to scan the environment for subtext about the characters. As Kubrick often did in his movies, Field places the audience in a position of slightly-removed omnipotence, where they are able to observe the characters like an all-seeing god.
For example, Lydia’s home with Sharon is very spartan, modern and cold. Her apartment shows signs of wear and tear but it is filled with her music and other decorations, invoking a sense of comfort and familiarity that enables Lydia to relax and compose her music. Another example would be the contrast between the environments where Lydia meets Elliot. When they meet for lunch, their surroundings echo their cordial and exclusive professional relationship. Later, when sees Elliot in his office, their relationship has become more adversarial, with Elliot holding the upper hand.
Also like Kubrick, Field appreciates how a touch of physical comedy within the context of a serious drama can take the audience by surprise. When Lydia meets with Sebastian in his office to discuss his rotation out of the Berlin Philharmonic, she steals his pen. It’s a funny moment that’s easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. It reminded me of Jack Torrence patting Mr. Grady’s back with his hand covered in apricot in The Shining. Or Mr. Deltoid drinking from a glass containing Alex’s mother’s dentures in A Clockwork Orange.
Given that Field is a student of Stanley Kubrick, it is unsurprising that the narrative thrust of the story is an antihero receiving their comeuppance. This theme of “instant karma” is one that Kubrick devoted entire movies to, including A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. In Tár, the celebrated and powerful Lydia at the beginning of the movie is shunned and impotent by the end. Her arrogance and bullying motivated those around her to bring her down to Earth.
Field spends a fair amount of time at the outset of the movie showing us all of the rewards Lydia has reaped from her academic and professional successes, as well as establishing that she also is in a committed relationship and loves her partner’s adoptive daughter. She acts with impunity towards everyone, confident in the belief that her status makes her untouchable. Then, about forty-five minutes into the movie, Field charts Lydia’s incredible downfall, where every aspect of her professional and personal life is unceremoniously taken away from her.
Lydia had so many positive things going for her in her life that her reversal of fortune is stunning. No longer the lead conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Lydia has been reduced to conducting a video game soundtrack in the Philippines for cosplayers. Instead of being able to parlay her influence and stature to seduce her subordinates, she’s offered a paid intimate experience. The publication of her autobiography is put on hold and she is prevented from conducting Mahler’s Fifth symphony, the conclusion of her masterwork.
Just as Kubrick’s anti-heroes never truly lost everything, and Lydia is still on her feet at the end of Tár. Her cultural cache makes it possible for her to find work, albeit in a remote part of the world where the people will accept her regardless of her personal reputation. She hasn’t lost everything, but she has effectively been canceled.
For generations, people were willing to laugh off the awful behavior of geniuses because of their contributions to society. Field sees Lydia as a figure who had become accustomed to getting away with abusing her position of authority, only to find that society no longer will forgive her trespasses in light of her greatness. In today’s world, no one is above reproach, regardless of their field of expertise and accomplishments. In the blink of an eye, Lydia has gone from untouchable to touchable.
Field does a masterful job in the beginning of the movie showing how much sway Lydia has in sphere of influence. Her knowledge and talent are unparalleled. The only person with more knowledge than her is Andris Davis, the former conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Interestingly, he is also the only colleague Lydia is on friendly terms with. Based on their conversations, Davis supported Lydia when she arrived in Berlin and helped her succeed him as principal conductor. Even though Davis wasn’t the only person who helped Lydia in the early going, she treats him like a friend because they share the same belief in separating the art from the artist.
Davis has the longstanding view that time eventually will be kind to artists who did bad things when they were alive. Field isn’t interested in having us witness Lydia’s fall from the mountain; he also wants us to consider her situation from a historical perspective. Put another way, will society collectively shrug off or laugh at the bad things that Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and countless others did a hundred years from now and appreciate their cultural contributions without hesitation, or will they be canceled in perpetuity? Field doesn’t provide us with easy answers, preferring to let the question linger while the credits roll.
They are out to get you
In the first scene of the movie, one person asks another whether Lydia has developed a conscience. While the answer is “maybe”, there is little question that Lydia was shaken by how quickly her life unraveled. Throughout the movie, Tár reveals Lydia as an insecure genius. This could be due to the shame she felt over her humble origins in Pennsylvania, a fact she papered over with the numerous professional accolades she collected since she left home. Where she had once insulated herself with a wall of her own greatness, Krista’s suicide and its aftershocks jump-started Lydia’s insecurity and drive her paranoia.
Early on, Andris Davis references Schopenhauer’s treatise that the more brilliant a person is, the more they are affected by noise. Lydia, genius that she is, is easily disturbed by any random noise, whether it’s a beeping noise coming from another apartment, the rattle coming from her car’s air vent or the humming of the refrigerator. Field takes Schopenhauer one step further and proposes that random noise doesn’t just distract Lydia, it drives her to madness. Everyday noises even wake Lydia from her sleep. The soundtrack in the second half of the movie contains a subtle, unsettling drone. In this way, Tár is reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion, another movie where insecurity and sensitivity pushes the character over the edge.
The idea of the conductor being nothing more than a human metronome also puts Lydia on edge. She frequently refers to others as robots, which is likely a way she projects her insecurity about how she’s viewed upon others. While metronomes are commonplace for musicians, they are never far from view wherever Lydia is working, a symbolic reminder that she cannot escape people’s opinions of her profession.
Tár also shares many of the same traits as a horror movie. (I have to thank the Film Twitter community for making me aware of this.) Krista’s suicide haunts Lydia, and Field symbolizes this by having Krista appear as an apparition just out of view in several scenes. Lydia’s dreams are all nightmares, especially the one where someone is assaulting her. Olga’s derelict apartment complex is a haunted house if there ever was one, complete with broken windows, a shadowy corridor, dripping water and a growling black dog. Finally, horror movies often feature a woman being chased by a monster. This is true of Tár, except that the monster is one that Lydia can’t out-think, outrun or outlast: herself.