Tár Film Review | Full of Sound and Fury

Embedded throughout Tár is the idea of interpretation in time. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) often evokes these conceptual tools, both in her enunciations and in her practice. The conditions of these terms are laid out in the first two sequences. The first, a public interview conducted by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, is a character portrait that finds fruition in the second, a masterclass delivered by Lydia at Julliard. Tár, a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, is a conductor preparing the last of a series of live recordings (for Deutsche Grammophon, no less) of Mahler’s symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. She is, these opening scenes go a long way to stress, impressive.

Those sequences likewise articulate the inside within which her life operates. During the New Yorker interview, Lydia sketches her approach to conducting as starting the clock. Time starts and stops with her; the orchestra and the audience respond in turn. This arena of time is shaped by an act of interpretation – namely, a reading of intent. Mahler had something in mind when he wrote his Fifth Symphony, and it is Lydia’s desire to wring this out and make it her own (much as Bernstein did before her). These canonical aspirations fall on sceptical ears at Julliard. Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who is BIPOC and pangender, expresses antipathy towards Bach’s music because of what they sees as Bach’s misogyny (his 20 children the locus of attention). Lydia makes a spirited, actorly defence of the composer (going so far as to affect the style of famous Bach interpreters, Gould among them), but what is immediately clear is that no communication is possible. In a fine composition, Lydia dominates the wide frame and her audience, Max’s leg bouncing anxiously through a confrontation in which they are nominally involved.

What matters about this confrontation is less the content of what the interlocuters express than form in which they do so. Max toes the identarian line, ignoring Bach’s music completely. Lydia ignores Max, references to the divine nature of music always at hand. These interpretative frameworks are incommensurable, insofar as they are each firmly rooted in the generational and social expectations of the speakers. Lydia and Max are not even talking about the same thing, which, in both cases, is not music. Noticeably, the sequence plays out like a performance, the reasonable continuation of Lydia’s interview with Gopnik. She repeatedly refers to those with whom she disagrees as robots, but it is Tár’s automatism that stalks the frame. Her articulation is mannered, as is the way she moves through the world. That much of the masterclass plays out in a single, roving shot makes this performative nature apparent.

If Lydia Tár has a politics it is a politics of the institution. Director Todd Field thoroughly evokes a milieu, one which The New Yorker and Julliard already captures. Lydia’s inside is one where children are dropped into school in a Porsche. Her world is an image. One could view the film with ears plugged and still understand the Lydia who is presented to the audience. This is the image of the (cultural) institution, of impeccably tailored costumes. But there is an outside of the image, and it is this outside where Tár most often succeeds.

Todd Field delivers an impeccably crafted piece of cinema. As such, you should see it in the cinema. You should, of course, see as many films in the cinema as you can. Ease of access varies and your couch typically is not ticketed, but the most compelling aspects of Tár hinge on the spatial experience of the auditorium. The outside imposes itself on the image through sound. Too often I neglect the sound of cinema, but it is this experience that first indicates an unravelling. The image can do without sound, so much so that the only thing we expect of the soundtrack is it be properly synced. Lydia hears things she cannot place. Sounds shorn from their objects emanate from a corner behind your right ear. The closer she gets to these sounds, the further she gets from the source of her unease. There is a world beyond the image. A world present, though ignored, from the opening scene.

The intrusions into Lydia’s world are implicit from the start. During the interview with Gopnik, Field and the great Monika Willi cut to an image of the back of a spectator’s head. The shock of red hair sticks in the mind, though remains without reference until later. The spectator can only be someone Lydia actively avoids confronting. When the red hair reappears on a ghost, Tár settles into its narrative shape.

As the dominos fall, nothing will come as a surprise. What is interesting is not the story Tár tells (too familiar), but how it tells it (cinematically). There is an absence of judgement that respects the intelligence of the spectator. The construction is too self-serious (and too long), and it is not always clear what the film wants to be. There is an obviously delineated point at which the curtain should fall, but the final punchline more than makes up for a meandering coda.

Tár is showing in cinemas now

Featured Image Credit