Like a Rubin’s vase, it might be a completely different movie the second time

SPOILER ALERT: The first time I saw it, I read it like most people. A much-lauded predator is unravelled and cancelled. 

But there was more to it I couldn’t work out. There were cracks in the marble. I knew it needed another viewing. Some of the edits were too quick for me. The kids were interrupting. Snatches of dialogue were too soft. Was that shot meaningful?

A long time ago, I studied film at uni. A long-buried name, Tarkovsky, kept coming to mind but I didn’t know why. 

Everything is meaningful.

Unless You’ve Seen the Tar Twice, You May Have Misread It

Like a Rubin’s vase, it was a completely different movie the second time

Rubin’s vase black silhouettes on white background that look like faces
Image made by the Author with Canva Pro

SPOILER ALERT.

The first time I saw it, I read it like most people. A much-lauded predator is unraveled and canceled.

But there was more to it I couldn’t work out. There were cracks in the marble. I knew it needed another viewing. Some of the edits were too quick for me. Snatches of dialogue were too soft. Was that shot meaningful?

A long-buried name, Tarkovsky, kept coming to mind from film studies thirty years ago. I didn’t know why.

Everything is meaningful.

The second time I saw it was like watching a completely different film. I won’t go through with a pair of tweezers, separating it layer by layer. But part of me wants to because this is such a richly polysemic masterpiece.

It’s a Rubin’s vase: constructed to deliver an expected meaning but filled with enough cracks to make you question whether your reading is correct.

“It’s the eleven pistol shots?—?it’s a prime number?—?that strike you as both victim and perpetrator”

Lydia Tar in a scene talking about The Rite of Spring in Tar, 2022.

Overview of the film’s premise

Tár takes place over about one post-pandemic month. Lydia Tár (a fictional character) is a composer and conductor.

We learn via an interview with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik that she is at the peak of her career. A conductor at the putative world’s best orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and partnered with Sharon, its Concert Master.

Tár has a PhD in ethnomusicology having spent five years with an indigenous tribe, the Shipibo-Konibo, in Peru. She also has a biography, Tár on Tár, soon to be released, and is about to achieve a long-held ambition of conducting Mahler’s fifth symphony.

The stalker

From the very first scene, we watch Lydia Tár sleeping awkwardly on a plane, her eyes covered with a sleeping mask. Someone is filming her on a phone while in a text conversation with another party.

Snippets say she is an early riser. There’s a comment that she is haunted. A question as to whether one still loves her. And an answer of maybe. One senses malevolence in the banter. 

Tár is being watched and stays watched the entire film.

The camera takes a voyeuristic gaze. There is a distance and a sense of separation between the person (or us) who is watching. We are eavesdropping. Obstacles are in the way of accessing her: pews of the auditorium, a lane of scaffolding when she’s running, and foliage obscures her in the woods.

It’s in the woods where she hears screaming. She looks all around her, aware of her vulnerability. 

Tarkovsky

I finally googled Tarkovsky just to put it out of my mind. Andrey Tarkovsky made the 1979 film, The Stalker, which shares a production sensibility closely similar to the second half of Tár. 

Tarkovsky was famous for making it difficult for a viewer to understand whether something is real or a dream. Todd Field achieves the same as evidenced by the number of reviewers who (mistakenly in my opinion) think the last act is a hallucination.

My interpretation

The conversation on the airplane could only be between her assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Krista Taylor (the ex-lover and accordion player). I believe Tár has had a ménage à trois of sorts (for several months with the pair). 

Then Krista starts making unreasonable demands. Lydia stops the sexual relationship and breaks things off. Francesca, remaining as Lydia’s executive assistant is in the trusted position of having access to all Tár’s email, appointment calendar, social and other accounts. It is Francesca who later edits/vandalises her Wikipedia page.

Tár sends several emails giving a poor reference and warning other conductors that Krista is unstable and may jeopardise their orchestra. Francesca and Krista remain in seemingly constant contact.

Tár and Francesca fly to New York on Eliot Kaplan’s (Mark Strong) private jet for the New York Festival interview with Adam Gopnik. Francesca says she received another weird email. Lydia tells her to delete it.

During Gopnik’s lengthy introduction, we see Francesca silently mouthing the words, indicating she either wrote it or is otherwise a key part of the construction of ‘Lydia Tar.’ During this introduction, we see Lydia being measured by a room of tailors, Francesca stares admiringly in a mirror. We also see Lydia slap several albums on the floor of her apartment and slide them around with her foot. Another foot rests on hers at one stage (Francesca’s).

In the final shot of the ‘backstory’ interview, we see the back of a woman’s red hair in the audience.

Francesca’s growing resentment

After the Gopnik interview, a journalist called ‘Whitney’ flirts overtly with Lydia. Lydia comments on her impressive Birkin handbag. (They cost $20,000.) Francesca is visibly angry and interrupts to move Lydia on to the next appointment. As Lydia begins to move away, a persistent Whitney asks if she can text her later.

That evening in the hotel Lydia begins to settle into the piano to work on her score. Francesca loiters too long and asks if she should come back later that night. Lydia says coming back isn’t necessary. Francesca says someone left a gift for her at the hotel. When she pens it later, we see it is Vita Sackville West’s Challenge.

Lydia Tár is easily painted as a monster. Lydia arrives home to the luxury Berlin bunker, not only does she have the handbag from Whitney, we receive signals that she is a pathological liar.

Lydia drives their daughter, Petra, to school, identifies her bully, and corners her. She tells her she knows all about her and threatens that she’ll ‘get her’ and that God is watching.

After seeing this scene once, I shuddered at the depths of Tár’s meanness. We are supposed to. Is she a bully? Or are we being manipulated?

The second time, I felt it was what any parent of a kid being bullied would do: confront the bully and tell them to back off or else. But we are already weighing the scales against her.

The corruption of power

The first viewing made the character of Olga, the Russian cellist, a disruptive character who drops in so that Tar repeats her pattern of predatory behavior.

But that’s not what happens.

When Tár and Olga eventually meet, the young player discloses that she has modeled herself on Jaqueline du Pré, whose passionate style of playing many consider to be the best in the twentieth century.

When they meet for lunch, Tár begins to lose her authority. Olga is young and somewhat coarse. She disregards the conductor of the 1976 performance, it was Du Pré who inspired her to start the cello. She doesn’t know who the conductor was. She didn’t see it in person, but on YouTube. Like Francesca, she’s a millennial, the next generation.

Olga is prodigiously talented and played Elgar’s fifth symphony as a 13-year-old. She offers to send Lydia a link. Is it sinister or perverse, that she watches it?

Maybe, but only in a first-time viewing. Olga is at the start of her career. This is where we see the transference of power. The pillars of Tar begin to tremble. 

There is no diegetic evidence of any wrongdoing. Tár is open to other ideas. She consults. She gets consensus being making decisions. She is collegial with the audio team in the box.

The auditions are behind a screen, as is the protocol, a vote is taken. The selection is unanimous. The voters all choose number 2 as the superior, who is Olga.

Olga seems to overstep small boundaries, like playing the maestro’s score and offering an improvement. 

Tár drives her home to her uncle’s squalid-looking living quarters. Olga kisses her hand through the window (a gesture of appreciation and thanks).

The fragility of power

In the second private rehearsal, Olga arrives soaking and asks for a towel. She’s been caught in the rain. Lydia is wearing a bathrobe because she has just washed off the excrement from her disabled neighbor.

She has also discovered the sound she has woven into her composition is from a medical alarm. As the carer barks orders at her. Tár silently does what she is told, helping lift the filthy woman into her commode wheelchair.

After Lydia’s contact with Petra is cut off, Lydia is visited by the family of her dead neighbor. She starts playing the accordion loudly singing that the apartment’s for sale, apartment for sale, your mother’s dead, and your sister’s in jail.

One way to interpret this is a descent into madness. Another is a fitting song for a family who has left their disabled mother in the care of their intellectually disabled sister.

A critique of cancel culture

The film is overt in laying out Lydia Tár’s opposition to cancel culture in one of the satisfying early scenes in which she gives a guest lecture at Julliard.

She meets Max, a BIPOC (black, indigenous, person of color) who is studying to be a conductor using a piece of new music Lydia finds a poor choice. If the composer’s intention is unclear, she says, how can they expect a conductor in some major, or minor, orchestra be expected to piece it together?

My prayer for you is you will be spared the embarrassment of standing at the podium for a 4’33, trying to sell a car without an engine. (The 4’33 is a silent composition by John Cage. The art was the ambient noise the audience would hear. )

Max, has chosen a vacuous new piece Tár describes as masturbatory. As an alternative, she asks what he thinks about Bach. But, well, he doesn’t like Bach.

Tár is incredulous. You don’t like Bach?

This becomes a lesson about the importance of separating the art from the artist.

Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to *the* most boring conformity.

Unable to satisfactorily answer any of her questions, he storms out of the lecture theatre embarrassed, calling her a f***g bitch on the way out.

She reponds by calling him a robot.

Does she go too far? Yes, she humiliates him. It is bullying. But what a lecture! If you watch closely, you’ll see Francesca filming from a back wall.

Francesca’s motivation to blacklist Tár

In several scenes, Francesca seems smitten with the charisma and charm of Lydia, saying her interview was ‘perfect’ when Lydia thinks she was garrulous. She says very little, and Lydia encourages her to speak her mind if she wants to be a conductor.

The appointment of the assistant conductor job triggers the beginning of Lydia Tár’s downfall. It was not only Krista who was fixated on Tar. It is also Francesca. Power makes people charismatic. When they are entrusted with passwords, email accounts, speeches, and schedules to prop them up, they also have the power to pull them down.

We see Francesca’s by-line in an article attacking her. She has liaised with investigators on a deposition over the death of Krista Taylor. She’s made an effective reputation tarnisher with the editing ‘hatchet job.

When Tár calls her phone and leaves a message, You better get your pretty little ass back. Francesca doesn’t respond so Lydia speeds to her house trying to find her. We see Rat on Rat in red underneath her book title, Tár on Tár.

Francesca steals the score for the unctuous Eliot, who pays her for it.

There is clearly a stalker in her house in several scenes, including when Petra wakes up in the night, and they both turn around and look into the shadow.

The denouement

In the end, she silently faces a board that dumps her from performing the Mahler, her funding is axed, there are protests against her book, the hatchet job video has been circulated through social media, and her street posters have been vandalized, as has her Wikipedia page. 

The fragile construction of Lydia Tar is being pulled down.

On performance night she dresses in her conducting suit and waits in the performers’ wings, a metronomic drumbeat of war in her head.

She charges and tackles Eliot who has indeed crawled his way to the podium. She yells at him, THIS IS MY SCORE (I believe Eliot has paid Francesca to steal it.)

The brand strategists advise Lydia to lay low and then retell the story from the beginning.

She goes home to her working-class home. She is moved watching an old black-and-white recording of Leonard Bernstein talking about What does music mean? from the 1959 New York Philharmonic Young People’s concerts series. This was her inspiration to lift herself from the working classes to the greatest music halls of the world. She refinds her intention. 

Most describe the final scenes as a great demotion, and that’s fair. Her prodigious talent is reduced to conducting a video game score, but it’s where the people are. It is like a full circle arrival at her beginning?—?the ethnomusicology.

Yes, the monster has been hunted. She wasn’t entirely innocent. But was it deserved, or just an opportunistic pile-on, to help others clamber an inch higher?

In that sense, I see this film as being about the corruption of power, but also the power to corrupt. Tar is both a victim and perpetrator.

A redemptive character

What I like and think will endure about the character of Lydia Tar is her artistic integrity.

She has the humility to sublimate her ego and go back to the beginning.

She seeks the score from the music library, rehearses with the musicians in a leaking room, studies the intention of the composer, and finally conducts it to a Philippino stadium of cosplay video gamers. This is where the people are now. 

The Monster Hunter game is seen as an irony. This ignores that it’s a global phenomenon, with a vast and worldwide fan base.

This is the next generation. She has not lost her relevance. She’s refinding it.

This masterpiece will be on the film studies syllabi for many years to come. 

But you need to see it more than once to fully understand it. You might even see a completely different film.

Originally published at https://daniellespinks.com on December 23, 2023.