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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz


A Slow Burn Foreshadowing

To refer to a film as “brilliantly ugly” might sound like a strange kind of compliment. But the tremendous, silent, normalized ugliness of Todd Field’s Tar is one of its essential qualities.

Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a genius. That much is clear. An acclaimed conductor/composer living in Berlin, her resume and list of accomplishments are impressive enough to make even the most uninterested in classical music drool with curiosity. She runs a major German orchestra alongside her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) with whom she shares a newly adopted daughter Petra.

Days away from conducting one of the biggest performances of her career, she also has new music being released, a book coming out in time for Christmas, and a loyal assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant) who has waited more than patiently and did all that she has been asked to do disregarding morality along with suitable new hires to consider for the orchestra. She is beloved and at the height of her powers.

It all comes crashing down.

Tar plays out very much like a slow-burn horror film. It never rushes, it takes its time and there are many moments of deeply uncomfortable silences in which so much is revealed if you pay close attention. The sound effects are the equivalent of a cherry on top of the sundae. As Lydia’s world slowly starts to crumble out from underneath her, her relationship to sound changes. In her most quiet moments, she can hear certain things but just barely. The cries of a screaming girl she’s never able to find when she’s jogging to the lock button on her car door rattling to a timer ticking deep inside a cabinet. All these sounds are warnings, unresponsive arrows pointing to her impending downfall.

Lydia’s fall from grace doesn’t take that long but the film itself, which is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, doesn't take place over a very long period. The suicide of a former student hints at a pattern that soon exposes itself.

Lydia Tar is not a rapist but she is a sexual predator. Through a scholarship program for young women she created, Lydia most likely had several sexual encounters with many of them throughout her existence. Her latest student who was particularly young became infatuated leading Lydia to ensure she did not get any career opportunities before blocking her from her life completely. The innocent young girl grows more and more desperate until she exits the world completely. It’s very much like a sexually abusive film producer who ruins victims' careers by labeling them difficult to work with. The power structure is very much the same.

Lydia has no idea just how much of a position of power she holds over people and yet she enjoys many moments of feeling powerful and she thrives on it. She got sloppy. That was her mistake. To make bad choices when you finally reach that level of success is to get sloppy and that’s what she does. Francesca (Whom it’s hinted has a sexual relationship with Lydia as well) is at the end of her tether. Traumatized, guilty, and frightened at her role in Lydia’s corruption, Francesca finds herself denied the opportunity by Lydia at just the right moment. She silently resigns taking with her emails documenting Lydia’s misdeeds.

Having seen the film three times, I divide Tar into three parts. Francesca’s exit is when part one officially ends. Part two sees Lydia struggling to maintain control. She attempts to distract herself by attempting to satisfy her physical appetites by investing in the new Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer). Olga is very much part of a younger generation. She doesn’t idolize Lydia the way most do. She interacts with her casually the way one would interact with a new roommate as opposed to an employer. She’s not rude, she just seems to be effortlessly swimming in Lydia’s waters without getting wet. She learned lots of classical music not on records but on youtube which is beyond Lydia’s elitist comprehension. She gobbles up big bites of food as Lydia sits in front of her with a wolfish smile only eating a salad to maintain her perfect figure for her impeccably designed one-of-a-kind suits. She makes Lydia uncomfortable but Lydia seems to like it, perhaps envying Olga’s authenticity.

It is through many of the supporting characters (Mostly Olga and Francesca) that Tar shadows the topic of economic oppression. They’ve managed to reach certain opportunities while living in squalor. Lydia storms over to Francesca’s residence to confront her after her resignation. Her former assistant has taken off leaving torn pages of Lydia’s new book all over the floor. The apartment looks unsanitary and Olga’s building has flooding and wild animals lurking at the bottom. Lydia is stunned but not shocked by these surroundings. She always wants to be above them but god forbid she is confronted with anything that makes her uncomfortable.

By the beginning of Tar’s final chapter, discomfort is all there is. The worlds come crashing down and it’s very much a dark fairy tale, a parable, an interrogation, and a Greek tragedy all in one. The Queen’s reign has come to an end and she is banished from the kingdom and sent to live in exile. The sorceress who thought she was unstoppable is now the dying swan. Lydia has always prided herself in her ability to reinvent herself and is perhaps a bit relieved to be starting anew. Still, her new circumstances are all very new to her and there is a genuine reckoning that this all could have been avoided that seems to wash over her.

Deep down, she knew this was coming. Many moments suggest it. She rushes out of her apartment to meet with her board to discuss PR strategies only to be confronted with emergency services carrying a body bag containing her dead neighbor whom she thought was beneath her. It’s just another foreshadowing of her mortality within the world she’s created for herself.

Tar carefully examines the natural flow and structure of power. How that power is wielded, how it is exploited, why it recycles itself, and who maintains it. It equally examines how people who’ve done wrong are to be held accountable and the differing perspectives that surround the topic. “Today to be accused is to be guilty,” Lydia’s former mentor tells her over lunch. He compares today’s “cancellations” to the prosecution of Nazis after the war. Lydia has a pretty strong stomach but even she seems uncomfortable with this. Many scenes are very long and the camera stays in one shot. These are usually scenes that explore the dynamics between Lydia and the modern world. The world keeps evolving and those who can’t or won’t adapt will get caught in the crossfires.

The cinematography, the interiors, the score, the script, and Merlant and Blanchett’s performances are among Tar’s top perfections. Tar is not a film people will enjoy but they will be interested and invested in it. Many viewers may even care about Lydia even though they won’t like her.

It’s hard to swallow the feeling that Fields envisions a very specific future for the world through modernizing reconstruction (We are at the dawn of a new era and I feel the sense of familiarity towards the year that has been 2022 that presides over the atmosphere of Tar will resonate with younger audiences) but that doesn’t make the film any less uncomfortable. Fields are trying to say that the writing is on the wall with people like Lydia but the wall already had several hammer holes in it and wide cracks towards the ceiling. I wish the overwhelming emotional gut punch of Tar was something I could have better prepared myself for psychologically (Despite Blanchett being the grandfather clock of the film, there are no minor players here. Some of them simply tick louder at different moments.) but I don’t regret diving underwater before Tar’s final wave crashes onto the rocks.

Jashan. (2022, September 29). Tár Trailer: Cate Blanchett’s Performance as a Troubled Genius Musician Impresses Fans.

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