I Didn’t Really Get ‘Tár’

We begin with Lydia Tár visibly anxious. She’s rubbing her hands together, taking shuddering breaths, and swallowing some unnamed pills from her young assistant. She’s nervous about something, though we don’t know what quite yet. Then, she’s introduced to the audience by “New Yorker” writer Adam Gopnik, who plays himself. He interviews Tár, played by Cate Blanchett, in front of an eager audience. He goes on to list the plethora of  Tar’s achievements throughout her career, making it obvious to both audiences that she’s a force to be reckoned with. 

Lydia is pretentious in both her meritocratic resume and her upper-crust circles. She has a Ph.D in musicology from Harvard, has won an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and an Oscar while leading orchestras in Cleveland, Boston, New York, and, where the film takes place, Berlin. Tár is an incredibly busy woman, perching at the Berlin Philharmonic while also marketing her upcoming book, “Tár on Tár.” It really seems like she can do it all. 

The first two scenes of the film are practically only dialogue, which takes up the first 45 minutes of the film. The interview with Gopnik, and later lunch with Eliot Kaplan, who is involved in the same charity as Tár. They go back and forth in their conversation, and I’m trying to hang onto every word. I can’t. I don’t know what certain words mean. I have never studied musicology and have a very basic understanding of music theory. As the film continued on, I started to come to a disappointing realization. I didn’t really get it.  

Throughout these scenes of dialogue, Field establishes a world. A world of aristocratic intellectuals, who have settled themselves in a class of their own. Not only are they absurdly wealthy, but they’re incredibly academically inclined. To establish these characters as such, Field overwhelms viewers with esoteric musicology references, detailed descriptions of traditional Peruvian tribal music, details of Gustav Mahler’s marriage and whether or not his infidelity matters within his art, begging the question of whether art can be separated from pastiche, and on and on and on and on.

I found myself feeling very proud when I understood a reference, only to realize that this singular moment of self-reflection took me completely out of the movie. I would then try to re-insert myself into the world, while at the same time debating whether or not I should google, “Who is Edward Elger?”

Just when I found myself zoning out, “Tár” found a way to pull me back in with tension and conflict. “Tár” felt like a walking bad omen— I was just waiting for her to fall from grace. Fairly early in the film, after the two major dialogue scenes, Lydia Tár guest lectures at Julliard. Lydia decides to focus intently on a fidgety, BIPOC, and pansexual student, Max, who admits sheepishly that he isn’t a big fan of Bach. His reasoning is partly that the music bores him, but also that dead white guy composers don’t really ‘do it’ for him. Once these words leave Max’s mouth, the dynamic between Lydia and Max shifts from student/teacher to predator/prey. 

She dissects Max with such callousness and ruthlessness that it was hard to watch. Still, I couldn’t look away. The shots were stunning. Blanchett’s acting was moving and unnerving. The editing was seamless. I watched in horror, and also schadenfreude, as I watched Cate Blanchett deliver arguably the best one-liner this film has to offer: “You are a robot. The architect of your soul is social media.” Max storms out of the room, and Lydia continues on as if nothing happened. That’s how I felt for most of the film. A moment would excite and frustrate me, and then immediately change to the next thing. I never felt like I could fully absorb the tension and meaning I desperately wanted to feel. The film thrusts you into its own world– no matter how far it is from your own. 

“Tár” talks a lot about the power of music, but it never invites you to feel it. The entire film wants you to make up your own mind about Lydia, and doesn’t really argue anything. It’s up to the audience to decide whether or not she’s a victim or the perpetrator, to think about the meaning of her work and whether or not that has anything to do with her actions. Her force is dizzying. She’s cold, yet passionate. She’s cruel, yet kind (and slightly dependent) towards her adoptive daughter. She’s obsessive and meticulous. She’s against those who don’t have creative vision. Those who don’t “think for themselves.” She’s married, but her eyes wander. Does Lydia deserve to be admired? Does she deserve to be canceled? Tár runs with these questions and doesn’t answer any of them. 

If you’re looking for a film that says something, “Tár” isn’t for you. If you consider yourself to be an average movie-goer, “Tár” isn’t for you. If you want to see something that’s unconventional, maybe give “Tár” a try. But when it comes down to it,  “Tár” wants to tackle so much. The film wants to make an allegory out of everything, and wants to be something that you’ve never seen before. It achieved that at least; I’ve never seen something quite like “Tár.” 

Even though it had its moments, I can’t help but feel like it rejects structure to the point where it has none. All of the typical standards and conventions that dominate film theory are rejected in this movie to the point where it ends up rejecting the joy and love that lies within these conventions. The film is so against exaggeration that I feel like it didn’t say anything at all. Tár clouded me in a deep fog. I couldn’t see past the pretentious jargon and niche references. 

The “New York Times” described “Tár” as an “extraordinary coup that Field and Blanchett have pulled off.” I’m not quite sure I agree with that. It’s a coup alright; I felt incredibly ambushed and overwhelmed. It’s certainly a different film, but It’s not the film for me. Blanchett’s acting and Field’s direction were successful in raising some existential dread within me. What did she really do? Is she going to get caught? I was filled with questions and intrusive thoughts throughout the entire film, which I think was what it wanted out of me. But by the end, I found that there was no payoff. 

I didn’t get to understand the details of what Lydia Tár actually did. I didn’t get to see any of her relationships in a fleshed out and meaningful way. I found myself thinking that this film was too long while also being too short. I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand more. I wanted all of the noises, symbols, and allegories to make sense in the end. They didn’t. I never figured out who was editing Lydia Tár’s Wikipedia page. I never got any satisfaction from Tár’s “cancellation.” “Tár” never truly invites you into the story. The viewer is on the outside looking in. For two hours and 38 minutes, I watched an immersive experience play out — an immersive experience that I was never immersed in. 

“Tár” has all the elements to be my favorite film of the year, yet it fell completely flat. Lydia Tár was the most developed character in this film while also being the most mysterious. Her gaslighting, fear of humiliation, and intellectual superiority paints her as a complex enigma that almost isn’t believable. I believe that Blanchett’s portrayal made the audience really believe that Lydia Tár could be a real person — a real person that is completely out of touch with regular society. 

 A film doesn’t need to spell it out for me, but I argue that a narrative has a responsibility to come to a meaningful conclusion. The ending scene of “Tár” is one of the most visually stunning scenes I have ever seen. The final scenes of the film put Lydia Tár in obscure situations in a foreign country, still obsessively studying and composing music. In the final scene, viewers see Lydia Tár on stage again, only to see how far she’s truly fallen. I’m unsure where she actually was. An anime convention? Why is she conducting an orchestra in front of a bunch of cosplayers? Was I meant to understand the cultural and allegorical significance of this scene? I couldn’t shake off the feeling that everyone else was in on the joke, in on the relevance. The movie ended the same way as it started for me: desperately trying to play catch up. 

I don’t think that “Tár” is a bad film. Quite the opposite. There are so many scenes in this film that I don’t think will ever leave my brain. It was brilliantly acted, seamlessly edited, and obviously well-planned and edited. I just didn’t understand it. I may have missed the point entirely, but I don’t think that if I rewatched it, I’d understand it more. That’s okay. I’m sure “Tár” will win many Oscars, and I’ll be standing in front of my TV, cheering them on. And I’ll be wondering if The Academy got it either.