Lydia Tár demands attention and is given quite a lot of it, for better or worse. She’s a globally renowned composer, the subject of an admiring New Yorker profile, and the conductor of the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic. Between her vocation and her celebrity, she’s grown accustomed to being a focal point. Not all attention is desired, though, and Tár has earned nearly as much censure as praise.
Todd Field’s Tár is a thorny character study that situates us alongside Cate Blanchett’s Lydia as she parades through interviews, rehearses with the orchestra for their next performance, dutifully maintains her relationship with her wife and adopted daughter (even while attempting to pursue sexual relationships elsewhere), and deflects the increasing criticisms and accusations surrounding her.
Tár, like the performances of its conductor, is a work of formal mastery; like the conductor herself, it confronts us with tensions that are tough to resolve. As the rot of Lydia Tár’s past actions comes increasingly into the light, and as we watch her respond with dismissals and excuses, Field refuses to shade toward either empathy or outright condemnation. Taking a difficult and delicate approach similar to much of Martin Scorsese’s work, Tár lets its character bluntly be herself, leaving it to the audience to wrestle with how to interpret her actions.
At first, it seems as though Tár is merely prickly and controlling. For all her devotion to the art of music, Lydia Tár lives in a strangely silent world. Whether it’s a misplayed note, an awkward question, or a heated emotion, any obtrusive sound is met as a conflict. Throughout the film, Field often rushes out all the noise until we’re left with only the muted thrumming of vehicles and household appliances. The thick quiet effects a sterility, a simulated quality.
It’s a clue to Lydia Tár herself. As more is revealed and as the façade of her composure begins to crack, it becomes clearer that hers are graver sins than bluntly wielding her power. With accusations coming to the forefront, her time is near to running out. She seems to sense this, though she never acknowledges it. In the New Yorker interview, she notes that some pieces have “the power to reach back into time and transform one’s past.” But while she lauds the power of the great composers, she doesn’t truly have the courage to “suffer the ghosts of the past.”
Tár is a troubling character to watch because, even after her downfall, she continues down the same paths that have wrought calamity in the past. We anticipate some transformation or perhaps a confrontation, but she continues to act as though she’s untouched by her past. She doesn’t realize that it’s already caught up to her. Outpaced her. As she says at the start, “Keeping time—it’s no small thing.”
The film, however, is up to the task and engages with time in adept ways. Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography incorporates both sturdy, architectural framing and long handheld takes that manage to be complex while unobtrusive, following Tár through classrooms and hallways. Monika Willi’s skilled editing also deserves praise: an early sequence uses quick, rhythmic cuts that flow together to form a sense of melody.
Field even uses the audience’s expectation of cinematic time to surprise. At one point Francesca, Lydia’s assistant, gives Tár unwanted news in her office. The scene suddenly cuts to Tár in a boxing workout. We understand, as films have taught us to, that we’ve jumped in time but are meant to draw an emotional connection between the images—Tár is expending the frustration the earlier news brought. But then we are back in the Tár’s office, Francesca asking where she disappeared to, the matcha she requested now cold. Field allows the audience to assume that he’s compressing time; the sly twist comes when he reveals that he isn’t.
For this film, time is truly of the essence. And for us, it’s essential to understanding Lydia’s actions—and our own. Time is the framework in which we live our lives and understand our world. We can hardly separate time from our understanding of ourselves: the ways we’ve changed, who we hope to be, the regrets we seek to escape or redeem.
Augustine understood the essence of time as a coherence of the past, present, and the future. Our present—who we are right now—is never isolated from either past or future. Charles Taylor, building on Augustine’s ideas, wrote that “my action knits together a situation as it emerges from my past with the future I project as a response to it. They make sense of each other.” That is, our actions in the present are both based on how our past has shaped us and are “projected” toward a future that we’re aiming for. Fittingly, Taylor noted that Augustine turned to music to express his concepts: “This is the kind of coherence we find in a melody or a poem, favorite examples of Augustine. There is a kind of simultaneity of the first note with the last, because all have to sound in the presence of the others in order for the melody to be heard.”
This simultaneity, or unity, of time helps make Lydia Tár’s actions a bit easier to understand (although no easier to cheer for). The ghosts of Tár’s past range from affairs and pressured seduction to abuse of power and possibly even a role in another woman’s suicide. These actions form the predicament of her present, and they shape her responses to her situation. But to characterize Lydia Tár as a woman running from her past would not be sufficient—she’s also running toward something else. That might be an increase in fame, a heralded legacy, or simply maintaining the status quo. Regardless, she’s aiming toward a vision of herself that calls her to make each action and decision.
Martin Heidegger, himself following Augustine’s line of thought, believed the future to be so crucial to our selves that it could not be abstracted from the present or the past. In a strange way, it could even be considered a source of the present: “The present is rooted in the future and in the [past].” We project our future selves; we are summoned by our future selves. But this does not mean that who we become is an altogether different person. As Heidegger wrote, “And to what is one summoned? To one’s own self.”
Within this dynamic of projecting and summoning, Heidegger viewed time as “intuited becoming,” meaning that our formation is never simply rational. While we are always aimed toward a specific future, which future is often more a matter of our longings than one of conscious intent. This distinction holds a key to Tár’s character that is paralleled in James’s consideration of sin: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 2:14-15 NIV).
James, too, traces a process of intuited becoming, albeit a distorted, broken one. He captures the persistent nature of Lydia Tár’s destructive actions. She is a person shaped by the abuses she’s gotten away with and aimed toward a future that sustains the power of her position, enabling further abuses.
But Lydia Tár is not the only victim of this cycle. We are all susceptible to this dynamic of twisted formation, and our limited vision of time only further endangers us. We often think of our actions only in terms of the present—momentary decisions limited to our immediate view. Actions ripple out beyond that, however, calling us toward a specific vision of ourselves. If we continually act toward evil desires, they begin to shape us toward devastation. Taylor observed that “we have an irrepressible craving for eternity, and so we strive to go beyond [our present]. Unfortunately, this all too often takes the form of our trying to invest our little parcel with eternal significance… and therefore falling deeper into sin.”
Tár is not an easy film to respond to, giving no easy ground to either contempt or compassion. Regardless of how we feel about Lydia Tár, we should understand that we are fundamentally watching a character who is projecting herself into whom she wants to be. The Tár at the end of the film is a person acting toward her self-centered desires—just like the Tár at the beginning. We may be loath to admit it, but her character makes sense. As Taylor described, her past, present, and future are aligned in her actions, even as she shows little regard for where her path is leading her. She is “lost in [her] little parcel of time.”
Tár’s portrayal of Lydia is complex and without commentary. Still, Lydia Tár is a negative example, even a warning. In that regard, the film shares something in common with James’s exhortations. James clues us in on the nefarious dynamic of sin, how our temptations shape us toward sin, mature us toward disaster, and ultimately bring about death. He calls us to be aware of our desires and the process of intuited becoming. As Augustine, Heidegger, Taylor, and perhaps Lydia Tár herself would attest—it’s a matter of keeping time.