This article contains Tár spoilers.
For the last 10 minutes of Todd Field’s Tár, an elusive yet beguiling character study about an elite musician’s fall from grace, the fate of Lydia Tár remains a mystery. We know that Lydia, as played with an erudite augustness by Cate Blanchett, has been exposed to be many things: a sexual predator, a manipulative employer, and a relentlessly selfish spouse. Even her name is an embellishment, with the disgraced EGOT winner returning to her forgotten childhood home where her estranged brother calls her Linda. In this context, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the accent mark on her surname is similar affectation—a pretension that reveals a flattering self-regard.
But after her brother surmises she hasn’t the faintest idea about what her life really is—accusing her of not knowing “where the hell you came from or where you’re going”—the movie then plops Lydia into an unnamed Southeast Asian country where her lifestyle at a humble hotel is a million miles away from the rarified airs of where she began the movie in Manhattan’s Hotel Carlyle. Just where is her life going?
Slowly, surely, Field lets Lydia’s new reality sink in. She’s been banished by the privileged company she coveted to be a stranger in a strange land, unaware that even placing her hand in the local tributary is unwise given the crocodiles that inhabit these waters (which we’re told are an invasive species introduced by another high-minded artist who once shot a movie here: Marlon Brando). And ultimately, we learn what’s really become of the former Berlin Philharmonic Chief Conductor. She’s found herself overseeing a new orchestra, one which she leads with the same imperious zeal that she dedicated to performing Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5.”
… Only this orchestra is playing video game music to an audience that couldn’t care less about the musician “obliterating herself” on the podium. They just want to hear their favorite bits of music from Monster Hunter played live while watching a giant monitor stitch together cutscenes from the game. As the endpoint of Tár’s fall becomes apparent, Field’s camera pans across a sea of cosplayers dressed as various aliens, heroes, and monsters.
This last beat is a darkly funny one. It’s also been greatly debated. Already there have been persuasive essays arguing Lydia’s final descent is a hallucination, one brought about by that gruesome knock to the head she took at the top of the third act; others find its depiction of her loneliness in an exotic land to be a patronizingly colonial brand of racism; while still other viewers prefer to elevate the final scene as a validation for the seriousness of video game music composition. (The touring Monster Hunter Orchestra is a real company that tours for cosplayers and conventions around the world.)
All, however, seem to come to the same immediate conclusion. This is a bitter and fitting fate for a woman who began the movie being interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker Festival (also a real-life writer for that venerated periodical). Lydia began making enemies with the modern world when she aggressively defended Bach from a Gen-Zer; now she’s condemned to find art in the allegedly artless.
While this reading is certainly credible—it was also my initial reaction while watching Tár—it is perhaps uncharitable to Lydia herself. Which is a position that’s easy to take. This is a cruel, pernicious, and hypocritical character who apparently made her name early in her career by championing the indigenous sounds of Peruvian music, and yet who cloaked herself in the literal garbs of the white patriarchy as she rose in esteem and privilege. She proudly tells a group of Juilliard students that she’s “a U-Haul lesbian” but in the most debated sequence in the movie, she refuses to accept that a young BIPOC pangender person can have a point-of-view on Johann Sebastian Bach different from her own.
The scene is challenging because on a certain level, she is fair to question what Bach’s prodigious habits in the bedroom (he fathered 20 children over the course of two marriages) have to do with a B-minor. Nevertheless, Field relies on a grueling, 10-minute tracking shot, all captured in almost clinical deep focus, to ratchet the tension as Lydia escalates from condescending annoyance with Juilliard student Max (Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist) to hostile disdain. She uses her power and authority as a prestigious composer to isolate and humiliate a minority voice that challenges her own comfort with conformity. She tells Max he must subjugate his identity to the intent of the composer, but she doesn’t subjugate her identity; she transmutes it to look how folks traditionally expect a wielder of power to appear. She’s a “U-Haul lesbian” dressed in finely tailored tuxedos.
More conventional studio films might’ve depicted that paradox as a tragedy, or at least a sympathetic form of self-denial. But the truth Field and Blanchett strive for is more slippery and aloof. Blanchett’s exacting performance, defined by a fluid physicality and rueful grins that suggest a weariness that comes from wearing the crown, masks a predatory insatiability that takes nearly the whole movie to uncover. Lydia is a throwback to the type of deeply troubled antihero protagonists who used to populate a different type of cinema—and who, like Lydia’s classical music idols, were exclusively male. But in a modern age where an 18th century composer can be “canceled” for his marital excess, having a protagonist this selfish and self-indulgent is an anomaly on the screen. In other words, no one today wants to see Lydia Tár’s redemption story.
And to be sure, there is no personal or professional redemption possible after she’s outed for grooming and preying on her young assistants—and certainly not after she strikes her male replacement (who is a mediocrity riding her coattails) in front of all of Berlin! It’s the end of her prestige, her marriage, and her pride. Nonetheless, there is a genius about this character that suggests a long abandoned integrity. It cannot be redeemed, but perhaps it can be reclaimed, if only for herself.
When Tár begins at the aforementioned New Yorker Festival, the sequence acts as a shrewd exposition dump by Field’s screenplay. Gopnik reads a glittering and trenchant resume to a Lincoln Center audience that is so detailed it almost has to be true. At the end of this recitation, Gopnik says he saw Lydia wincing as he unspooled her many triumphs and successes. She then appropriately plays the humility card, making a self-deprecating remark about how polite society reveres the specialist, not the jack of all trades.
However, this faux self-flagellation is a put-on. Later in the same scene, Lydia explains how the role of the conductor is to create the illusion of sudden epiphany or inspiration during a performance in front of the audience, “but the reality is right from the very beginning I know exactly what time it is, and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together. The only real discovery for me is in rehearsal. It’s never in performance.”
Lydia’s entire life is a performance though, right down to her supposed flinching in front of Manhattan’s insulated literary bubble. We never actually see Blanchett’s face during these displays of shyness. Rather Field intercuts the scene with intimate moments from further back in Lydia’s timeline. We see the image of Tár towering above her vinyl collection of Mahler performances, including that of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field’s godseye view of her aligning her records suggests she is likewise curating her own life’s work. The insidious reality, however, is already present with the disembodied foot of a young woman slipping into frame. In retrospect, it’s presumably the toes of the doomed Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) or her current assistant Francesca Lenten (Noémie Merlant). It’s illusion and reality, side by side.
Francesca is at the opening scene, too, mouthing every word Gopnik is supposedly embarrassing Lydia with. Clearly Tár and her assistant edited this introduction (if not wrote it themselves), and the only thing that Lydia winces over is Gopnik slipping in an ad-libbed joke about Tár’s forthcoming memoir, Tár on Tár, being an excellent stocking stuffer.
The irony of this orchestrated self-congratulation is that Lydia clearly is framing herself in the shadow of her mentor Leonard Bernstein. It is even his recording of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5” that she gives pride of placement while laying her record collection out. And at the end of the movie, for the first time in presumably decades, Lydia seems able to really listen to what the legendary New York Philharmonic composer has to say.
In the sequence before her exile to Southeast Asia, Lydia revisits her childhood bedroom. It’s from a different life when folks on Staten Island called her Linda, and inside one of her old VHS tapes, she at last hears “Lenny.” He tells an audience that “music is what you feel when you hear it.” He also says, “A note is better than words… [a] note says more about the way we feel than a million words can.”
Lydia’s performative illusion of the great maestro is nothing but a cacophony of words. She deploys them brilliantly in the opening scene and weaponizes them to heinous effect against a BIPOC pangender kid at Juilliard, but it isn’t for a full hour until we actually see her stop talking and listen to an orchestra at the only place she feels creative: in the rehearsal room. Even then, she is mimicking the ghost of Bernstein, oblivious of the literal ghosts she has created and who now haunt her Berlin apartment, waiting for their pound of flesh derived from her ruin.
Lydia says Bernstein believed music’s power lay in “Teshuvah,” the Hebrew word for repentance or “the return” from sin. Her idol said music had the ability to “reach back into time and transform the significance of one’s past deeds.” The significance of Lydia’s past deeds comes to bear as the truth about how she used her own power to groom young women comes out; her previous public image of a genius is recast to that of a monster—rightfully so.
Still, by the movie’s conclusion, Lydia appears to finally hear Bernstein’s words. To play music is the point, not the luxuries and vanities it affords. And Lydia is possibly on her first steps toward repentance. When she attempts to receive a massage in an unnamed city, she realizes it’s actually a brothel. There, the young women look up at her with the same cynical gaze as the new cellist discovered after she realized the conductor was pursuing her romantically. Lydia’s reaction to this sight is to vomit in shame.
Like Bernstein suggested, she has accepted she must play the music—any music—as an end unto itself. She’s taken the advice she gave with laced venom to Max; she has obliterated her identity and supplanted herself. And she seems to have found peace in that, even if it’s just playing the music for Monster Hunter. Call it her equivalent to performing in “graveyards” like real-life disgraced Berlin Philharmonic conductor Willhelm Furtwängler before her.
It’s what she deserves, but at least the illusion is gone and there is still music to be heard.
Tár is on VOD now.