We first see the famous conductor asleep on a private jet, through a smartphone screen, as someone, her assistant, presumably, texts. Then, the screen goes black as voices, music, and ambient noises give way to Tár’s opening credits. They roll very slowly, in reverse from what we’re used to seeing. The names of the assistant editors, music supervisors, producers, composers, music editors, hair stylists, and camera crew appear before those of the stars. After three or four minutes of credits, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, about to interview Lydia Tár onstage, recites her lengthy bio – it’s almost too cultivated to believe – over shots of the conductor mid-fitting, her tailor deep in exacting labor.
From the second the credits begin to roll, Todd Field’s latest film attempts to reveal and interrogate the innumerable painful, hilarious, outlandishly tedious details which comprise the creation and upkeep of public greatness. Dark and darkly funny, it’s a psychologically thrilling study of a character at the mercy of her own excellence. Through Lydia Tár’s eventual fall from cultural grace, the film examines what’s happening to culture and souls under social media, digitization, surveillance, and #MeToo era call-outs.
Lydia Tár talks a lot about the soul. She hates robots. Her wardrobe is filled with grays, blacks, navy blues, burgundies, and whites in simple, disciplined, utilitarian, and elegant fabrics and cuts made just for her. We learn during the Gopnik interview that she doesn’t read any of her reviews, echoing the kind of purity and control her wardrobe emits. She selects her own circle of influence carefully. Her name (that redundant accent in Tár), like her wardrobe, is tailormade, nodding toward some high sophistication. She’s charismatic, flamboyant, witty. She culls from a dazzling bag of high-culture references and jet sets, drops names, and pronounces words, no matter the language, impeccably. She’s won a Grammy and an Oscar. She knows Mahler and Bach as intimately as lovers and not only loves music and conducting but believes in its transcendent and transporting power – its ability to move souls.
Or at least she seems to. Her awards and adornments signal that she’s a great and singular talent. The film, however, only shows her conducting in brief slices. Nor are we given the full story of her great and apparently cancel-worthy transgressions, but only snippets and dream sequences. Some critics have taken issue with this move but Tár’s brilliance has less to do with the brilliance of Lydia Tár than with the problem of parsing greatness from perceived greatness, the artistry from the alarmingly impressive bio, the robotic moment from the soulful one. We are being asked to spot the moments when we (and the world) may conflate the two.
Lydia Tár is great at being Lydia Tár. This constant and controlled performance – she’s just finished a book called Tár on Tár – appears to exhilarate her while taking a toll, leaving her tired, calcified, blocked. She’s trying to compose, but we only see her at the piano, playing a note or two, staring into space, pursing her lips, getting up, making tea, wandering off, beginning again. Tár tells Gopnik that for her, discoveries only happen during rehearsal and never during performance. For all her disdain for her shallow juniors, she herself is somewhat robotlike.
Reviewers have scorned and praised the now (in)famous scene between Tár and a young gen-z student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) for the way it confronts wokeness. The thrilling scene is shot in one long manic and graceful take. Tár advises the students to conduct music that “actually requires something of you” – songs that everyone knows but that the world might see differently with a new gloss. Seems like solid advice. When she suggests that Max conduct something by Bach instead of the newer music he’s chosen, Max says something to the tune of No, because, as a BIPOC pangender person, Bach’s misogynistic life – he sired twenty kids – makes it impossible to take his music seriously.
Well. If Bach’s talent can be reduced to identity, Tár says, so can anyone’s (including Max’s). What, in the end, does Max, does anyone, want their work to be judged on? With what and whose standards are we to evaluate a piece of art, an artist, a career? Finally Tár throws up her arms. Whatever, she tells Max. If you want to avoid Bach, fine. Because, after all, the soul selects her own society. That’s not just a cutting remark about creative vision. It’s the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem:
The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—
Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—
At her low Gate—
Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat—
I’ve known her—from an ample nation—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
The Soul in Dickinson’s poem chooses a life of solitude and artistic creation, unmoved by whatever wealth, power, or opportunities those chariots and emperors bring to her gate. Dickinson’s Soul, the one which chooses art, is the secret third thing haunting the classroom scene, bringing into relief the hollower aspects of both Max and Tár’s stances. What is the difference between the kind of insulation and isolation that creating great art requires and the kind of insulation and isolation that creating a famous persona, a mystique of power, requires? And when do these overlap and diverge?
Just as Max’s position is meant to signal that he is a good and moral person, Lydia’s signals that she’s cultured, a real artiste. If Max’s stance cancels culture, Tár’s shows what official culture cancels. What is left? Behind Max’s moralizing and Tár’s careerism, the soullessness and narcissism, the elitist posturing, is laid bare. What about the Soul unmoved by power? What about real art? The narcissism of small differences produces the most boring conformity, Tár says, referencing Freud.
Although the classroom was a technology-free zone, someone was recording Tár and Max’s spat. Edited and spliced, the video gets uploaded to social media and made to look far worse. The video is attached to a string of other morally questionable incidents, and so begins Lydia Tár’s slow downward spiral. And so, the film is also about the transition from analog to digital modes of perception, story telling, and time-keeping. Time is the thing, says Tár, and “conductors,” as Gopnik says to her, “are often seen as human metronomes.” A metronome, from the Greek metron (measure) and nomos (regulating, law) morphs and breaks under digital conditions. In the analog world, metronomic, Tár and other cultural icons, for better or worse, can self-regulate more easily. She can clip out her reviews and tuck them into a box without reading. In the digital panopticon, which soon comes to swallow Tár’s life and identity, the cameras are always on, as are the other people behind them, recreating and recasting your narrative, messing with your Wikipedia page, hacking up videos they’ve taken, recontextualizing information.
The first half of Tár shows the foundations and seams, the minute to minute upkeep of a powerful person in the insulated, glamorous, and tailored-suit-filled world of official culture. The second half, marked by surrealness and fragmentation, shows how forces might infiltrate and dismantle those foundations. In a moving scene near the film’s end, she returns to her childhood bedroom and watches old videotapes of the conductors and music that inspired her as a kid, before all this. Lydia Tár is forced to search for her soul.
The movie’s final scene, funny, bizarre, and disturbing, finds Tár in Southeast Asia. She’s conducting again, looking serious and dedicated as ever. Only, when the camera pans to the audience, all dressed up as cosplayers, we realize she’s leading an orchestra as part of a live action video game.
The audience, as in social media, are not watchers who attend to and consider the culture in front of them, but participants. When everyone is a participant, constantly performing, what happens to culture, narrative, time, space, codes of conduct, attention, art? Who or what architects our souls?