The hot topic or mostly joke, on “Film Twitter” (don’t ask) this past week, has been over whether the Todd Field movie Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, is about a real person. The Cut titled their review “No, Lydia Tár Is Not Real,” a nice companion piece for the countless explanations for why you’d have to be an idiot for believing that Lydia Tár was real, facetious jokes claiming she is real, and on and on.
I can understand the impulse — both to wonder if Lydia Tár was a real person, and to play along with the joke. This is a movie that feels like an inside joke by design. It is a bit like a fake biopic, but it also isn’t exactly Pop Star, which dared to have actual jokes. Tár, by contrast, presents milestones in the life of its subject almost exclusively in the form of allusion, supposition, veiled reference, and verbal deflection, making you feel like you’re supposed to know things about this person beyond what the movie is showing you. It’s almost elitist by omission.
The first scene takes the form of a live New Yorker event, in which Adam Gopnik (played by the New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik) recounts Lydia Tár’s extensive resume — which includes a degree from Harvard, stints conducting orchestras all over the world, a fellowship studying the traditional music of a Peruvian tribe, being the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and one of only 15 people ever to complete an EGOT. Gopnik asks her about her life, and she pontificates on subjects like the history of the conductor and the importance of understanding Gustav Mahler’s marriage before conducting his symphonies. On paper, the idea of giving this much weight to a person who gestures with a tiny baton does sound sort of funny; in practice, I felt like I was lost in an impenetrable thicket of esoteric references and vague aphorism. Presumably by design, but also not exactly pleasant.
The next scene is her lunch with Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), who manages some kind of charity with which Tár is involved. He peppers her with similar kinds of worshipful questions about music theory and esoterica, and it goes on nearly as long. Together, these two scenes take up almost FORTY-FIVE MINUTES OF SCREEN TIME. Field is clearly world-building here, meticulously constructing a snow globe out of only the most insufferably anodyne NPR segments.
The next scene, undeniably the film’s best, takes place in a class Tár is guest-lecturing at Juilliard. A fidgety student comes up to the stage to volunteer, and his dynamic with Tár gradually evolves from mentor/protege to predator/prey. This after the student, who describes himself as a “BIPOC pansexual” admits that he doesn’t really like Bach because he was a white, cis European. Tár lectures him on not letting identity politics blind him to great art (in so many words) verbally dissecting him like a bug until he finally has had enough and storms off.
Finally, I thought, the movie was getting somewhere. Conflict! Tension! Genuine emotion breaking through the facade! There was a joy to their passive-aggressive sparring, even if their debate was somehow even more arcane and esoteric than you’d imagine an identity politics debate set in the world of music theory to be.
And yet, there’s still something inherently perplexing about the scene; the feeling that Tár is meant to be a send-up of a world that doesn’t exist. Or of a milieu that’s already so minuscule and marginal that parody feels unnecessary. Are there really so many pansexual BIPOC aspiring composers out there being menaced by ruthless lesbian EGOT winners? What do we get out of imagining it? It’s a hat on a hat.
Yet the Juilliard scene is undeniably the best of the film, because at least there’s conflict, and it moves. We get to see Lydia Tár evolve from mentor to predator. The subtext of it is “Lydia Tár is a real piece of work,” which the next almost two hours of movie fail to expand on in any meaningful way. We get mostly allusions and slanted references to other reasons Lydia Tár is a real piece of work.
Tár has a sickly long-term partner (Nina Hoss) and an ambiguously-sexual relationship with her assistant (Noemie Merlant, who looks like a younger version of Hoss). There’s a guy at the Berlin philharmonic who she hates and a former student who is angry with her, whom we’re left to infer is a jilted ex, and possibly Tár’s grooming victim. It’s never clear, but because nothing in Tár really is.
The passion for music is something we’re almost never invited to feel. It’s mostly alluded to, a status symbol in the characters’ lives, something they talk and scheme about but so rarely live in. As the old saying goes, “sell the sizzle, not the steak,” and here it feels like Todd Field has filmed the whisper campaign instead of the scandal. I assume people who love this film (many of whom would probably pay to watch Cate Blanchett paint an outhouse, and fair enough) will read this and shout “that’s the point, you dolt!” But to me, it’s emblematic of a movie that’s constantly positioning itself as being different without ever articulating what it is.
Tár‘s final shot, admittedly gorgeous, feels intended to be a crescendo, the final culmination of Lydia Tár’s descent into… obscurity? Artistic irrelevance? Like Mickey Rourke jumping off the top rope into the abyss at the end of The Wrestler. And yet I couldn’t quite enjoy it because I didn’t understand where it was meant to be taking place. What was this event the film so confidently alluded to? Was I meant to know, to understand the cultural significance of it, and how it related to Lydia Tár’s journey as a character?
My reaction to it was a lot like my reaction to much of the rest of the movie: I didn’t get it. Tár feels like a thing that exists solely to be unlike other things, the white elephant’s white elephant. In the end, it repudiates convention less than it repudiates the sense of joy those conventions evolved to produce. It’s understated to the point that it’s not stating much at all. Or maybe it’s just doing so very quietly and I couldn’t quite hear. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a low talker: you often don’t catch what it’s saying and it’s designed to make you afraid to ask.