Tár Programme Notes

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Please note: These notes contain important plot points and so are best read after watching the film.

Some art finds perfection in its alchemy, in the things we can’t describe or understand. Some art has its perfection meticulously constructed by its author(s); each individual element so deftly constructed and assembled that the entire thing soars, and being able to see the moving pieces only adds to its magnificence. Todd Field’s third film, the bravura character study Tár, is a magnificent example of the latter.

On the surface, this is a straightforward story set in a rarefied world: the fall from grace of Lydia Tár, a powerful person who abuses her position. Unlike Field’s previous films In the Bedroom and Little Children, whose stories were plucked from suburban America, Tár takes place in the concert halls and high-end apartments of Berlin, where Lydia holds the appointment of Conductor for the city’s esteemed Philharmonic Orchestra. Like his central character, Field presides over an abundance of finely-tuned elements, moving them along with perfect timing. The film begins with its credit sequence played backwards – a bold introduction to a film that is highly critical of hierarchy, of the idea of individual genius. It’s also a story of control, and of how it is lost – gradually at first, then all at once.

Lydia is properly introduced with a storytelling move so audacious that I found it hard to believe. Over twenty or so minutes, she is shown in conversation with a New York Times journalist, in a scene that covers her achievements – including an EGOT – her work, and her opinions on everything from the role of women in her field to the philosophical approach of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Cutaways show her exclusive apartment(s), her custom-made suits, her tasteful possessions. Field and Blanchett appear to be showing us their full hand – but is this how she really is, or how she sees herself? Is it how she wants to be perceived, and if so, by whom?

Perception and surveillance are key themes. The long interview with Lydia – shot with exquisite patience by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister – is interrupted with a sharp cut to the back of a head in the audience, uncomfortably shifting the perspective. We also see Lydia asleep on a plane via a phone screen; waking up in the middle of the night to investigate a suspected presence in her home; in private moments, posing in her flat in a recreation of a photograph of Bernstein. In each scene we are invited to question who is watching, who is in control.

Lydia’s need for control stems from the high status she occupies, and would do anything to maintain. As a woman, and a self-described ‘U-Haul lesbian’, she has statistically encountered barriers on the way, but any deference to marginalised identity markers is now irrelevant to her, as she explains in a tremendously tense early scene at a Julliard masterclass where she spars with a younger (and, significantly, non-white) queer person. She surrounds herself with women – principally her assistant played by Noémie Merlant, and her wife and first violinist played by Nina Hoss, both excellent – but only on the condition that she is the most powerful woman in the room, often causing others to take the fall for her. She doesn’t accept challenges to her power: the only times she brings up her gender or sexuality are as trump cards in situations where she isn’t getting what she wants. Even a child in her daughter’s school is subject to her powerplay, in an extraordinary sequence where she declares herself to be ‘Petra’s father’ (there are some interesting questions about female masculinity here that I am still figuring out my thoughts on).

As allegations about impropriety and abuse of power surface, and Lydia begins to unravel, we begin to question the initial image we were presented of her. Is her taste cultivated or middlebrow? Should we ever have accepted the comparison of her work with that of the great composers? Do her achievements exalt her from her transgressions? Her citation of Bernstein’s concept of music being able to ‘reach back into time and transform the significance of one’s past deeds’ feels significant in more than one way.

In its storytelling, production and thematic weight, Tár plays like a modern day fable. It’s an old story of power dressed in impeccable new clothes, a timely but also timeless version of a story that risks becoming clumsy or didactic in lesser hands. It has a great deal to say about identity and concealment. I kept thinking of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and how it shows ugliness seeping to the surface over years, decades – until eventually no high art or well-manicured suit or tasteful sitting room can hold it. It’s significant that, after her downfall, Lydia seeks solace in a chic stone-walled building much like those she has spent much of the film in, only to find within it evidence of her own monstrousness, causing her to vomit on the street outside.

‘There’s a humility in Bach, because he knows it’s always the question, not the answer, that involves the listener,’ Lydia explains to a student at her masterclass – a statement that could easily double as Field’s philosophy behind this extraordinary film. It’s rare to see a film so dense with meaning – about power, gender roles, taste, the canon, even colonialism – and so open to audience interpretation, like all the most effective allegories. Perhaps that’s where Tár’s alchemy lies; in the meeting of film and audience, in the moment where the artist’s control is lost.

Claire Biddles, culture writer and GFT Marketing Officer
January 2023

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