TÁR Review – A Complex and Challenging Character Study

Who is Lydia Tár? Its’ now somewhat a joke that people tried to find Lydia Tár on google after seeing the film, but it is a question at is at the centre of Todd Field’s extraordinary work. Is she real? Does she exist? It’s a subject the film tries to grapple within itself, just who is this person? The film doesn’t give a definitive answer. Lydia Tár doesn’t really exist, not even in the film, she’s a persona created by an undeniably talented but slippery human who begins to believe so completely in the mythology that she has created that she only appears as a person in brief glimpses.

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett in a dazzling performance that plays to all her strengths as an actor) is an EGOT. In an interview with Adam Gopnik (playing himself) at the start of the film she explains her success, highlighting trailblazers that came before her that were generally undermined by the closed male circle of the classical music world, but quixotically also refusing to admit that she has benefitted from programs encouraging gender equity. Her biggest accomplishment is as a conductor and she’s just about to take on Mahler’s Fifth with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Like her presumed mentor Leonard Bernstein, Lydia feels a distinct sympatico with the composer. She makes jokes that no-one genders the term “astronaut” so why should they call her ‘maestra’? She also makes quips that has the audience squirm. Lydia Tár a divisive figure in public and in private. She’s also a genius.

Todd Field has never been a filmmaker who is interested in easy subjects. His 2001 feature In the Bedroom showed the extent to which a seemingly ordinary middle-class couple go to in extracting revenge for a shattering murder. His second film, 2006’s Little Children dealt with porn addiction, infidelity, and paedophilia. That Field in his first original screenplay would be interested in abuse, identity politics, the price society pays for art, and just how much leeway any artist is given if they are deemed a genius, is far from shocking. TÁR is a conversation not a lecture.

Lydia Tár is misophonic, which means she can hear sounds that others cannot. This particular skill has made her a world-renowned composer, conductor, and ethnomusicologist. Lydia Tár is also an abuser and groomer of young women hopefuls who want to succeed in the world of classical music. She strings along her personal assistant (and we can presume ex-lover) Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant) with the promise of giving her the job of second conductor at the Berlin Symphony; a job that she isn’t even able to offer based on the rules of major orchestras. At some point she was involved with a young woman who was part of her conducting fellowship program, Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), and the affair soured. Lydia decided to block Krista’s access to orchestras, and as Krista became more desperate at her career being stalled and Lydia choosing to paint her as unstable, Krista’s recourse was suicide.

Lydia is married to Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) who is a well-connected German concertmaster and violinist. They have a young daughter named Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who as Sharon points out is the only person in Lydia’s life that she has ever had a non-contractual relationship with. Lydia is deep in the establishment, courted by cultural institutions, publishers, charitable organisations. She is, in her mind, untouchable – which is why she feels she can take enormous risks with the lives of others.

What Lydia doesn’t know is that she has already burned bridges. Someone, we can’t be sure who, is filming her. When she fires Francesca for not deleting all the emails from Krista she unleashes a tsunami that has been waiting to roar down upon her for a long time.

Despite all the warnings, Lydia still tries to seduce another young woman. This time a Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (newcomer Sophie Kauer who learned to play the cello for the film). Olga is one step ahead of Lydia and reverses the power dynamics. She knows Lydia’s reputation and cannily uses it for every opportunity it can give her.

Eventually Lydia is cancelled in the modern sense. Her numerous misdeeds become public knowledge and people are forced to stop associating with her. The irony is that her predecessor Anrdis Davis (Julian Glover) recited to her a real list of male conductors who were known abusers. In all areas of the arts there has been abuse of the less powerful. Field cannily points this out when Lydia finds herself in a country on the end of her professional line and is told that she can’t put her hand in the water because of crocodiles that were sent inland for a “Marlon Brando” movie.

One of the film’s greatest complexities is that at times Lydia Tár is, if not “right”, at least making a rational point. Do we as consumers and creatives allow ourselves to become so boxed in by our own identities that we can no longer listen to Bach or Beethoven? No society should tolerate those who exploit power, especially as we are understanding how prevalent that abuse is, especially in Hollywood itself, but Field also wants the audience to consider that perhaps some art transcends the person or period that created it. The scene at Julliard where Lydia cruelly taunts a young queer BIPOC about not wanting to play Bach is absolutely bullying on Tár’s behalf, but when she tells him “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity,” there is something to her argument.

One part of the film that particularly stands out is when Lydia is asked to help with the dying mother of her neighbour. What Lydia sees is the true cost of exploitation where a woman with an intellectual disability has been left as sole carer for her mother by her callow family. Exploitation takes many forms, as too does power.

“The problem with you is that you don’t know where you came from or where you’re going,” a character tells Lydia. More succinctly Lydia thought she had a special kind of protection, one which, paradoxically, was based just as much on her gender as her genius. Eventually the audience is given the bigger picture around Lydia Tár and just how much of her is conjured.

Does Field want us to sympathise with Lydia Tár? Absolutely not. Does he want us to understand her? Yes, as much as possible but never forgive her terrible behaviour. Despite TÁR being a fascinating character study, the film’s purpose seems to be grander still – it asks you what you forgive, ignore, forget to appreciate something transcendent in art while also challenging you to still look at it. It’s a contradictory position, much like the protagonists is a contradiction. As has been stated, Todd Field does not make easy films.

Director: Todd Field

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Mark Strong

Writer: Todd Field

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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