I didn’t really have any interest in Tár when it first appeared on the scene. For one thing, Brandon’s Tár/Triangle of Sadness mash-up review invoked the name of Aaron Sorkin twice, which made me think he was actually associated with the production, which was a turn off for me (he’s not, and I was forced to retreat from a pre-viewing argument in embarrassment when this fact was pointed out to me after I claimed it, but in my defense, the last time Todd Field made a movie, I was nineteen years old). For another, I have an intense aversion to most “Oscar bait” movies, which this seemed to be in every conceivable way. But after watching Maggie Mae Fish’s video essay “Tár on Time”, I knew it was only a matter of, ahem, time before I would fall into its orbit. Because this isn’t just an Oscar bait feature, it’s a movie that falls into my favorite not-quite-a-genre: women on the verge. And what a rich and rewarding text it is (to me, anyway, even if that makes me, in Brandon’s words, one of “the most boring people alive”).
Tár is the story of Lydia Tár, an elitist célébrité, a woman of prolific success in one of the most misogynistic artistic professions, musical conduction. But she’s not just that, of course; she’s also an accomplished composer, a studied musical anthropologist, an instructor at Julliard, and a forthcoming author. Outside of the realm of art and instruction, however, her personal life is … well, not “messier,” since every part of her life is ordered, measured, and precise, but definitely less in her command, even if she thinks that she’s in complete control. Her existence is a perfect curation of an image of who “Lydia Tár” is and what she means, and it’s built not on a solid foundation as she thinks and pretends, but hangs like a spiderweb, intricate and beautiful but incredibly fragile at the same time. Her marriage is perfunctory, passionless, and transactional, and the only person in her life who reciprocates her love without expectation, her daughter Petra, often goes long periods without seeing her, and even when she does, she calls her “Lydia,” not “Mom.”
Her professional accomplishments, which include completion of an EGOT, draws a curtain over the fact that, like countless men who have come before her in the same profession and who have abused every iota of power which has ever been accorded them, she is a predator. Lydia Tár, over the course of her career, has left a bevy of scarred women in her wake, students upon whom she has heaped her affections and with whom she has carried on power-imbalanced affairs, all with the expectation that, under (or after) her tutelage, said women will reap the benefits of her largesse in the form of placement into a competitive composition program or coveted conductor position. When the film opens, however, the first crack in the ice over the deeper waters of her abuses of power is starting to form: Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), who oversees the Tár Fellowship (the organization that launders her sexual predation into academic acceptability), notes that they’ve placed every one of the previous fellows into a conservatory somewhere, Lydia herself notes “except one.” Although her house of cards was bound to fall eventually, it’s that one, a woman named Krista Tayor, who will be the catalyst that brings about the fall of Tár.
In some ways, Tár is a ghost story, and Krista is the specter, regardless of whether she is on this plane of existence or not. She is a ghost, existing permanently on the outskirts of our perception, and perhaps Lydia’s as well. We never see her face: in early scenes and before we are aware of who she is, we see her from behind as she takes in the spectacle that is the walking, talking performance entitled “Lydia Tár”; she appears in Lydia’s dreams, but the warping of space that is the common element for these nightmare sequences occludes her; even the newspaper article that Lydia reads about her uses a photograph of Krista in motion, conducting, a great lock of her fiery red hair obscuring her face like a mask. She is present and non-present at once, like a vapor that Lydia tries to disperse with a waving of her conductorial hand, but which lingers, waiting for Lydia’s comeuppance. Although it’s not my interpretation, it’s possible to read that there is something supernatural at play here as well, as there are certain moments that imply a more conventional haunting is at play; Lydia is forever aware of various noises behind the walls or out of her sight. While running, she hears screams coming from somewhere out of her range of vision (keen-eared viewers will recognize these as, of all things, Heather’s screams from The Blair Witch Project); while trying to work on her newest composition, she is constantly interrupted by a two-tone sound reminiscent of a doorbell, which is later revealed to be the emergency tone of her dying neighbor on the other side of the wall; she is awoken by the humming of her refrigerator and the ticking of a metronome inside of a cabinet. It’s the last of these that’s most intriguing, as the metronome’s face is inscribed with a Kené pattern, which is not only used as a form of writing by the Shipibo-Konibo people of Peru who were the subject of five years of study by Lydia, but also appears in other places; notably, this pattern was added to the title page of Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge that is left anonymously at Lydia’s hotel (and which was presumably drawn in by Krista), as well as appearing in Petra’s bedroom in the form of clay that the child has been playing with.
Notably, this scene with the clay occurs after we learn that Krista has died. Is this just something that Petra saw in her mother’s work that she’s recreating, or a pattern that she stumbled across purely coincidentally? We know that Lydia gives her keys to her assistants based on an interaction with Francesca, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the inscription and activation of the earlier ticking metronome could have been something that Krista did intentionally in order to get under Lydia’s skin, but the clay remains unanswered. The fact that Petra is not allowed in Lydia’s office is mentioned several times, but immediately after observing the pattern in her daughter’s playthings, Lydia then finds Petra in that very office, a ghostly silhouette in the gossamer curtains, where the child has hidden from her sitter. Did Petra start the metronome while playing around after bedtime? Is Lydia sleepwalking and creating these patterns herself? The film doesn’t (and shouldn’t) provide a solid answer, and while I am firmly of the belief that there’s nothing supernatural happening here, the film doesn’t completely rule out that interpretation for the viewer who is so inclined.
Frankly, that everything is happening might have a rational explanation, or that perhaps in her spiral Lydia is seeing patterns (literally) where they do not exist as her past catches up with her, is much more frightening and anxiety-inducing. Frequently, Lydia is seen responding to sounds, or perhaps impressions, that she perceives but which we do not. While listening to NPR, she mocks the tone of the voice on the speaker, then turns to look behind her suddenly as if she just saw something out of the corner of her eye. This happens several times throughout the film, and it paints her as a person who, although seemingly thoroughly self-possessed, is always looking over her shoulder for her past to catch up with her. That’s what makes this a “woman on the verge” picture: the mask of sanity is slipping. To quote her directly, Lydia knows that her fall from grace is coming, inevitable even, and we know it too; she “know[s] precisely what time it is, and the exact moment we [Lydia and we the viewer] will arrive at our destination together,” and that destination is her downfall.
Everything about Lydia Tár is a lie, but she doesn’t see it that way; she’s conducting the way that people perceive her, even if that means out and out falsehood. She steals her wife’s medication before the movie even starts, gets replacements while abroad, and pretends to find a pill in a drawer when she returns home to find her wife in medical distress. She claims that she never reads reviews but in fact takes a detour on her miles-long run to visit a newsstand off the beaten path, where the proprietor has already pulled the publication with her most recent review for her; they do this all the time, and she adds this latest to a box of many more. She claims that other women doth protest too much about sexism in her field but she knows that this is an out and out falsehood. Her fellowship is supposed to help support women who want to get into the field, but it’s really little more than a recruitment front for the next ingenue who will become her sexual prey. She rejects gendered terminology and prefers “maestro” to “maestra,” but when confronting her daughter’s bully, identifies herself as Petra’s father, because she knows that, outside of being witty, urbane, and dismissive of the power of patriarchy as part of her public persona, maleness, with its power to intimidate and threaten, is still substantial, even if that masculinity exists only in perception and not reality. Even her impassioned defense of Bach to a queer, BIPOC student is not about Bach, but about herself: one must separate the art from the artist, she insists, but she’s really talking about herself, because beneath all the layers of tailored suits and carefully choreographed photoshoots that the art which is entitled Lydia Tár must be separated from the artist, Linda Tarr (as we learn she was named before deciding to play her own game of identity politics). It is a preemptive apology, not in the sense that it precedes her many ethical failings, but in the sense that it precedes their discovery. She’s already on the edge, verging on the fall, and she can hear her destiny sneaking up on her, even if there’s nothing there when she turns to look at it.
This is a rich, detailed, many-layered, and beautiful text, one that lends itself to a multitude of interpretations. It’s dense with meaning and subtleties that exist to be cleaved and inspected. Now that it’s available to a wide audience, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s demanding, but it’s worth the reward.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond