Content Warning: This article contains mentions of grooming, suicide and spoilers for the movie “Tár.”
Maya Ruder, Daily Arts Writer: And the Oscar for Best Actress goes to…
Kristen Su, Daily Arts Writer: No really, if Cate Blanchett (“Nightmare Alley”) doesn’t win, then the Oscars are rigged.
MR: So what’d you think?
KS: Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is the devil in disguise.
MR: That wasn’t what I expected at all. Lydia Tár’s life is a terrifying horror movie of her own design. She embodies the “obsessed, tortured artist” trope, which we’ve seen before in “Black Swan” and “Whiplash” — boring comparisons, but inevitable ones. But Lydia’s arc is distinctly different — she isn’t chasing perfection, she’s already there. The film opens with Lydia in an interview with real-life New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik. Gopnik lists Lydia’s staggering biography as a renowned musician. We see the lavish Porsche in the back of which she leisurely rides, her ornate hotel room, her beautiful home and her private, chic apartment that serves the sole purpose of housing her piano. She has it all, and then she doesn’t. Painful to watch, but she only has herself to blame.
KS: It’s the descent into madness for me. Everything about this movie makes me feel deeply unsettled. The shaky, handheld cinematography when she confronts Johanna (Alma Löhr, “Lindenberg! Mach dein Ding”), the girl who is bullying her daughter; the way she’s always running like she’s trying to escape from her past actions (as if that will absolve her of responsibility); the way she constantly sanitizes her hands — “out, damned spot!” — like she’s trying to wash away her sins. Lady Macbeth could never. The sound design only makes the experience more intense. The black screen with credits for two minutes at the start of the film, the ticking of the metronome that constantly wakes Lydia up, the weird noises that she hears from outside her apartment door with no visible source and the crescendo of sound leading up to her pretending to be attacked — all of it serves as an auditory representation of Lydia’s instability. I still feel tense after the movie.
MR: I think “Tár” may have been incorrectly sorted into the drama genre. It’s easily a psychological thriller. The way the film compounds shadows with obscure sounds and the occasional disembodied voice feels like the unexplained burning sensation on Lydia’s back. It wasn’t easy to sit through, and I kept waiting for a jump scare. Tension could even be found in scenes that weren’t meant to be anxiety-inducing. When Lydia confronted and threatened her daughter’s bully, I kind of loved it. It was amusing and satisfying — even a little profound. She says, “Johanna, God watches us all.” In hindsight, it sounds ridiculous coming from Lydia’s mouth. There’s excellent foreshadowing throughout the movie. An occluded, red-headed figure, revealed later to be scorned ex-mentee Krista (Sylvia Flote, “Discover a new way to explore”) whom Lydia blacklisted in the music community, seems to shadow Lydia and each mysterious sound that diverts Lydia’s attention felt like a warning that her day of reckoning is on the horizon.
KS: Totally agree. The audience has some degree of trust in Lydia in the beginning, although there’s clearly something going on with the unwanted emails and the book she receives with “Krista Taylor” on the first page. More hints are soon dropped. There’s the incident during her Juilliard masterclass, when she invalidates an aspiring conductor when he brings up that Bach’s music, considering his misogyny, is hard to digest for someone with a marginalized identity. Then, her preferential treatment of a cellist who wants to join the Berlin Philharmonic raises some eyebrows about not only her integrity but the power she holds as a conductor. When allegations of her grooming Krista surface in the media after Krista takes her own life, the audience’s suspicions that she groomed the cellist are confirmed. That’s where Lydia fully unravels — she lies about being attacked, she fails to tell her wife about the allegations. Then there’s the literal culminating blow when she attacks Eliot (Mark Strong, “Shazam”), the conductor who replaced her position as orchestra head.
MR: I’m still hung up on the fact that she lied about how she sustained her injuries. Was it pride or a desire for attention, or could she simply have been fulfilling a human impulse to sensationalize her own life? Because Lydia is such a mystery, none of these explanations feel conclusive. Speaking of which, the way Lydia’s journey ends feels really open-ended. In my favorite scene, she stands in a spa and is instructed to pick a girl by the number to be her masseuse. The girls sit submissively on their knees in a uniform semi-circle like an orchestra under Lydia’s thumb. One of the girls looks up at Lydia, which sends Lydia onto the street, doubling over and vomiting. This feels like the moment Lydia realizes her own disgust for herself. Has she admitted guilt and felt remorse? Is this a kind of redemption arc? It’s unclear how the last act of this film is meant to be digested, but it’s safe to say we aren’t supposed to empathize with Lydia. But I wonder about the significance of that scene.
KS: The girl who looks up at Lydia, it’s almost as if she knows. In a place where Lydia has come to hide and wait out the public scrutiny she faces, she doesn’t expect anyone to know about the wrongs that she has committed. No one else dares meet Lydia’s eyes, afraid to question her authority. But when the girl looks at Lydia, she’s saying with her eyes, “You’re the villain.” And that’s the first time we see Lydia react viscerally to her own actions. She is forced to confront that she is the monster everyone claims she is. That was a powerful scene.
MR: God, and that ending! Anyone who hasn’t seen this strange, albeit exceptional movie, would not believe us if we told them how it ends. Should I spoil it?
KS: By all means.
MR: Here it goes. After her fall from grace, Lydia Tár conducts live music to a video game in front of an audience of cosplayers. Maybe it doesn’t sound as ridiculous as it felt to watch, but just imagine a concert hall full of people with furry ears, furry coats and plastic armor.
KS: It was a trip.
MR: Kind of blew my mind. Kind of blew everyone’s mind — the theater was a choir of giggles.
KS: The idea of Lydia conducting a youth orchestra to video game music turns the movie on its head. There were newspaper clippings of Krista at the beginning of the movie, saying she was a youth orchestra conductor. In the end, we see Lydia conducting this youth orchestra, alluding to the reversal of their power dynamic. She is in the position of Krista, her victim.
MR: Really interesting point. “Tár” is an enigma and difficult to decode, but I think they could be saying, “You can be great — you can be the greatest — but you’re still mortal.” Just as Lydia said, “God watches us all.” Invincibility is a trap reserved for the powerful, and Lydia sticks her hand right in the fan.
[An unexplained, thunderous sound goes off in the background. It’s 11:56 p.m. on the desolate first floor of the Michigan Union.]
MR: That was a little freaky.
KS: Maybe Lydia rubbed off on us. Did we just imagine that?
MR: Life imitates art.