Tár: An Exercise in Time

(Film Review)


Director Todd Field’s recent film Tár stars Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár in a dramatic character study, the role of a conductor in the 21st century, and how quickly fame can crumble.

As a disclaimer, this article contains spoilers for virtually the entirety of the film Tár


To begin, Tár defines herself as a revolutionary; she acts above the rest of the world. Her movements reveal her as poised and perfect, and she emphasizes every action she makes. Throughout the course of the film, her intense and selfish personality returns again and again to isolate her from other characters, creating many conflicts. 


The first of these conflicts is seen at the movie’s beginning, when Tár teaches a course at Juilliard. When one student refuses to perform Bach due to the composer’s misogyny and racism, Tar lectures him on a number of things: the nature of ‘cancel culture’ in the past, how applying modern models of morality to past actions is flawed, and that no person can ever be perfect. Ironically, this statement is clearly never taken to heart by Tár herself. After this conflict, the student storms out of the classroom, and Tár flies home to Germany to begin her work as a conductor. 


In Berlin, Tár has a wife and daughter, but despite being closer to them than she is with any other character, she still maintains her cold, poised demeanor. Beneath her distant front, Tár does hold many emotions. For instance, she feels passionately about the piece she is attempting to conduct for the Berlin Orchestra, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, as she believes it captures the beauty of love. Additionally, despite the fact that her orchestra consists of many experienced and talented performers, Tár gives an important cello solo to a budding Russian cellist, Olga Metkina – played by Sophie Kauer – after feeling sexually attracted to her. 


Tár mentors Olga up until the performance of the piece, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and becomes so obsessed with her that she even follows her home to a derelict building’s basement. During this scene, Tár weaves her way through a catacomb-like basement and is scared by a dog, causing her to trip and injure herself.


The next scene depicts her over the kitchen sink, holding ice to her battered face. When her wife asks her what happened, Tár claimed to have been attacked. Tár finds it physically impossible to drop the facade of perfection; she is unable to admit to any failure of her own, like being spooked by a dog or cheating on her wife, and instead blames everything around her. This mask of false perfection begins to slip when one of Tár’s previous mentees, Krista, commits suicide, stating that it was because of Tár’s predatory nature and that she prevented her from playing for any orchestra. Tár is taken aback. Knowing that she is at fault, she orders her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) to destroy any evidence of recent connection between her and Krista. 


But it is too late, Krista’s grooming allegation – claiming that Tár only allows those who appeal to her to succeed, while she hinders the success of those who do not submit to her will – catalyzes Tár’s descent. From here, everything spirals out of control. At first, Francesca holds the supporting evidence as Tár had requested, until Tár chooses another person to fill the open role in the Berlin Orchestra. Francesca believed that this position was hers, and decides to desert Tár and reveal the information she claimed to have destroyed. While this is occurring, Tár is asked to go to New York with Olga for the launch of her book, and makes an attempt to sleep with her, to which Olga declines. Upon her return home from New York, Tár discovers that her wife has left her, stating that Tár’s exploitative patterns and grooming had weaved its way so deeply into their marriage that it was broken beyond repair. To make matters worse, this whirlwind is concluded by the revelation that footage from the class she taught at Juilliard had been leaked. The footage is edited to only show Tár’s negative behavior, and this, coupled with the grooming allegations, forces the Berlin Orchestra to remove her as the conductor. A furious Tár rushes onto the stage at the opening of a performance, and shoves her replacement off stage before attempting to conduct the orchestra. After being removed, she returns to her childhood home in America. There she meets her brother who calls her “Linda” rather than “Lydia,” and the audience is met with the realization that Lydia Tár and Linda Tarr have not been the same person for years. 


After the climax, Tár is invited to conduct an orchestra in South East Asia. She wanders around the city, entering a massage parlor. She is asked to select a masseuse from a ‘fishbowl’; one woman–labeled number five and seated in the same position as Olga during their orchestra rehearsals, looks at her. The regret-filled ending is completed with a scene of Tár walking to the stand at her new orchestra; the camera then pans to a crowd of cosplayers, and a defeated Tár centerstage conducting a film score, showing how far she has fallen from her professional career. 


Overall, the film is incredibly thought-provoking and emotional, which is accomplished through the movie’s unique filmography. The film starts off with slow, wide shots which bounce between Tár and whomever she is speaking to. Unease slowly begins to work its way in, and as Tár begins to unravel, the shots become choppy and swift. Additionally, the coloring of the scenes go from stark whites and grays to muddy browns and reds, jewel tones littering the sky above her. In the beginning, Tár emphasizes the use of time as a conductor, explaining that while the left hand controls the melody and harmony of the orchestra, the right hand keeps time. Time is a recurring symbol throughout the film; Tár maintains control over almost every scene for the first half of the film, keeping the timing steady. But as her facade begins to fade, she loses control of the pace, things become out of control, and she is left humiliated and alone in the end. This is shown symbolically by Tár placing a pair of headphones upon her head in the final scene, which play a metronome inside of them. Tár is no longer in control of time, the one thing she felt was vital to her role as a conductor, which shows her final defeat. 


An exploration of cancel culture, Tár proposes complex and interesting questions: should one’s background influence how their work is perceived, and if so, to what extent? Tár believes that it should have no effect on how one’s work is seen, arguing that the two are completely independent from each other. However, this is contradicted by her statements on Mahler, as she describes in the film how his work is influenced by his life. This poses another compelling question: if one’s work as an artist is derivative of their life, how can it be argued that one’s background has no effect? Tár’s antagonism toward the student in her Juilliard class stems from two parts of her life: the facade that she maintains, with her name and identity being detached from her beginnings, and her numerous exploitative actions inevitably catching up to her. Essentially, Tár wants to live in an idealized world where one’s work is seen as conceptually separate from their life, and tries to impose this belief on those around her. 


The performances in this film were excellent. Cate Blanchett embodies Tár in an almost metaphysical sense; she captures the perfectly poised facade that was perpetuated through the majority of the film, and when it finally begins to crumble, and the falsity of Tár’s life becomes apparent, her mannerisms and language shift from being controlled and tight, to loose and emotional. In the climax of the film, Tár rushes onto the stage in an attempt to conduct the orchestra. Blanchett encapsulates the desperation and humiliation that Tár feels during this; she is desperately trying to maintain control over the utter failure she feels her life has amounted to. Aside from Tár, Sophie Kauer’s performance as Olga is amazing. While not as intense as Blanchett’s, her acting captures the subtle differences between Tár and Olga, exhibiting the raw talent emanating from a rougher and more down-to-earth Olga, and the more postured Tár. The film is infinitely improved upon by the exceptional performances that allow the audience to discern the subtleties and differences that exist between each character. 


Overall I was astounded by Tár, especially how the slow evolution of the shots perfectly mirrors Tár’s descent into humiliation and defeat. The performances and filmography perfectly created Tár’s complex personality, and display how she slowly loses control over time, both literally and figuratively, throughout the film.