Lots of writers and critics disagree about Tár, Todd Field’s film starring Cate Blanchett as an art monster and orchestral conductor whose past catches up with her. Is the movie “the best film to date on ‘cancel culture,’ ” or is it “a regressive film that takes bitter aim at so-called cancel culture”? Is Lydia Tár clearly portrayed as an “abuser,” or is Field “stacking the deck in the character’s favor”? Is Lydia Tár a real person or a fictional character?
There is something, though, that everyone seems to agree on, and it’s what happens to Lydia Tár. (Spoilers ahead!) The conductor’s transgressions—real, exaggerated, or invented—are discovered, and they are her downfall. She loses her position, her foundation, her fame. She never gets the chance to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the performance that would be the capstone to her career. Cancel culture (or maybe it’s just justice) has reached out and found her, and by film’s end, she has hit bottom. Google “Tár ending” and you’ll find several pieces explaining the “bitter joke” of the movie’s final scene, Lydia conducting video-game music for a convention full of cosplayers in an unnamed Southeast Asian city. The game? Monster Hunter. The monster has been hunted.
However, I think all of this is wrong, or at least arguable. We may see all those things on the movie screen, but I’m not convinced that’s exactly what happens in the final third of Tár. None of these articles address what is aesthetically the most puzzling aspect of Tár. Very few writers have taken up the uncanniness of its final act, the supernatural elements Field introduces, and the hints—more than hints: the big, broad pronouncements—that a great deal of what we’re seeing on the screen might just be happening inside Lydia Tár’s head.
The final act of Tár is, I think, so heightened and weird that it basically doesn’t make sense if you try to read it literally. But perhaps because the movie’s cultural questions are so fun to wrestle with, or because Field’s attention to sociological realism in the rest of the film is so acute, many viewers are determined to do so. But when I finally watched Tár, it was the movie’s spookiness, and the uncertainty that spookiness casts over the film, that stuck with me. I think Todd Field is doing something entirely different from what almost every writer so far has thought he was doing. Field “moves smoothly from dry backstage comedy to something like gothic horror,” A.O. Scott wrote in a typically insightful review that still takes much of Tár’s “comeuppance” and the movie’s “ragged, wandering, superfluous denouement” at face value. Let’s explore the gothic horror of Tár.
I’m certain I’m not the only one to write about this—it’s a big internet—but after a lot of searching, all I’ve found is this tweet, from New York Times writer Joe Bernstein …
… which the writer and historian Mark Harris amplified, with his own agreement:
It was all in your head! is, of course, an often disappointing story construct. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it really doesn’t. I’m not ready to say that the final section of Tár is, as Bernstein believes, “a kind of hallucination or dream of personal disgrace, which therapy tells us is secretly pleasurable.” But I will go to the mat to say that reading the “plot” of Tár literally is a mistake. For long stretches of the film, we have exited the realm of realism and are firmly in the world of the supernatural. Tár is not truly a cancel culture movie. Tár is a kind of ghost story, in which we’re so deeply embedded in Lydia Tár’s psyche that nearly everything that appears onscreen is up for debate.
The ghost, of course, is that of Krista Taylor, Lydia’s former protégée, with whom Lydia is accused of sleeping and who, we know, was blackballed from conducting jobs through the emails Lydia hurries to delete. Even before Krista’s death by suicide, she haunts Lydia: We see her long red hair in the audience for Lydia’s conversation with Adam Gopnik.
We’re led to believe she sends Lydia a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge—a book inspired by Sackville-West’s love affair with a woman who threatened suicide after their separation—which Lydia stuffs into the trash in an airplane bathroom. And just about an hour into the movie, as Lydia returns to her pied-à-terre after lunch with her mentor, look who’s waiting for her, tucked behind the piano:
In movie time, this is just as the cellist Olga arrives in Berlin for her audition, and riiiight about when Krista dies. It’s also about the time Lydia starts hearing mysterious noises, some explicable (a medical device in a nearby apartment), some not. Who set her metronome a-ticking? Who’s that knock, knock, knocking on her door? Who’s that scream, scream, screaming in the woods?
And then comes the visit to the young cellist Olga’s grotty Berlin apartment building, where, she says, she’s staying with friends. Bernstein and Harris are right, I think, to view this as a pivotal moment in the film. Lydia, waiting in her car, finds Olga’s little stuffed animal. Behind her we see Olga walking into the entrance of the building. A silver SUV drives past, and—
In the reverse shot, no time seems to have passed, but Olga has vanished, and Lydia is already out of her car. Observed now by a gently drifting handheld camera, Lydia walks through the passageway and into a courtyard full of trash, where she hears, far away, a woman singing. We follow Lydia on her descent down the stairs, into a dripping, poorly lit underworld of unoccupied rooms. Deeper and deeper she goes, the pitter-patter of little steps echoing behind her, making her glance over her shoulder again and again. And then she turns, and—
Is that the black dog of fate? The black dog of depression? An actual, literal dog—but freaking gigantic? Where has Olga gone? What is this infernal place? Is this a dream, or a horror movie, or is it Tarkovsky’s Stalker? Lydia flees, and face-plants at the top of the stairs.
After her partner, Sharon, cleans up her face, Lydia gets up to comfort her daughter, Petra, in the middle of the night. And if you look closely, you’ll see, motionless in the dark corner of Lydia’s bedroom, nearly unnoticeable at the back of the frame, a red-haired woman: Krista.
We are no longer watching a movie whose style is that of, as Slate’s Dana Stevens put it, “cool, keenly observed detachment.” The movie has swerved, in these scenes, into the uncanny. Are we seeing Lydia’s dreams? Her greatest fears? Is she lying unconscious in a Berlin courtyard, her face being eaten by a giant black dog? Field never entirely reveals his hand, but the movie has transformed. Or perhaps another way to say it is that we’ve seen the movie injured, made just slightly shaky where once it was immaculately composed.
Lydia, too, is injured. Not just her face. Her right shoulder burns: “Notalgia paraesthetica,” her doctor diagnoses, which Lydia mishears as nostalgia. But perhaps the past is still with her, in some way: The nerve disorder notalgia paraesthetica presents as a phantom itch, an “unreachable itch,” not unlike the memory of one’s own guilt, or a sound you can’t unhear.
It’s that right arm, Lydia tells Adam Gopnik at the film’s beginning, that marks time. “Right from the first moment, I know exactly what time it is,” she says, with supreme confidence, “and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.” In the film’s final act, Lydia loses that right arm, loses her confident control over time, and a film that was up till now conducted at adagietto, like the slow movement of Mahler’s Fifth, picks up.
A video of a charged encounter at Juilliard goes viral, oddly edited from multiple perspectives, even though no one in that rehearsal room seemed to have a phone out. A story in the New York Post accuses her of grooming multiple young women. Moderato. Her performance score for Mahler’s Fifth disappears without explanation. She loses the support of her foundation, her access to a private jet. Allegro. We are in Lydia Tár’s point of view now, in her subjective space, and all is unraveling with shocking speed, including possibly her mind. Protesters picket her poorly attended reading in New York. Olga abandons her at her hotel for someone more fun. Sharon kicks her out and withholds their daughter. She loses her position, loses her chance at the Fifth. Vivace. And now, somehow, we are backstage at the climactic performance, and somehow Lydia is there too, standing next to the trumpeter while he fanfares. He pays her no mind, not even as she rushes the stage, tackling the hack they’ve brought in to replace her.
More than one critic has noted how unusually melodramatic this moment seems. Maybe what they mean is that it’s unbelievable. And maybe we are not quite meant to believe it.
This is, after all, what she long dreamed would be the crowning moment in her career. It is for this sublime symphony that Lydia has worked, fought, seduced, acceded, betrayed, loved. And now a future exists in which she never has that opportunity, in which Mahler’s Fifth is missing from her career just like its score is from her shelf, all thanks to a ghost from her past. What might a glimpse of that possibility do to a mind like Lydia Tár’s? At a massage parlor in that unnamed Asian city, she stands before a chamber, the “fishbowl,” in which a score of young women await selection, an overt enactment of the subtle power dynamic Lydia has been taking advantage of for years. “You just pick a number,” the receptionist tells her. Who is the woman who, in that dreamlike moment, looks up, the woman who makes eye contact with Lydia and sends her into the street, retching?
No. 5. If it all seems too neat to be real, perhaps that’s because it is.
But what does it all mean? What really happens? Is it all a dream? I admit that I don’t know, nor do I think Todd Field wants us to “know.” Tár isn’t a puzzle box, where the answer clicks into place at the end and we understand, at last, who Keyser Söze was. Think of this film, instead, as a journey through a haunted forest, like the ones the Grimms wrote about—like the one where Lydia hears that scream. We wend our way down ever-darker paths, becoming less and less certain what is real and what is not. By presenting the reality of Tár as increasingly subjective, Field is demanding that we question everything we see on that big screen, and receive the film as a mix of plot and psychology, incident and nightmare—all coming back around to the life, the dreams, and the fears of the incomparable Lydia Tár.
“The Five is a mystery,” she tells Gopnik in that same early conversation. Gopnik asks if she has a different interpretation of that symphony’s mystery than did her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. And Lydia responds with a reference to her ethnographic fieldwork in the Amazon, making a distinction about the relationship of the past to the future that I think matters for this interpretation of the film.
“The Shipibo-Conibo,” she says, referring to the tribe she studied—a real tribe, one known for the maze-like patterns on their pottery, replicated by Krista on the book she gave Lydia—“only receive an icaro, or song, if the singer is there on the same side of the spirit that created it. In that way the past and the present converge—the flip sides of the same cosmic coin.” She contrasts that belief with Bernstein’s belief in teshuvah—atonement, but also return: “the Talmudic power,” as she puts it, “to reach back in time and transform one’s past deeds.”
When Lydia Tár’s one chance at Mahler’s Fifth comes along, she will not be there to receive that song; she is, after all, no longer on the same side as the spirit that’s been haunting her. But neither can she imagine atoning, or transforming her past deeds. Perhaps what we see, in the avalanche of calamity that concludes this remarkable movie, is all that the monster can imagine instead.