Time Is The Thing: Lydia Tár’s Suspension of Reality

Time Is The Thing: Lydia Tár’s Suspension of Reality

Cate Blanchett can do it all, but Lydia Tár is losing grip. In Todd Field’s new drama, the actor plays a spiky conductor at once terrifying and tortured. To celebrate the arrival of our CATE BLANCHETT t-shirt, El Hunt follows Lydia Tár down the rabbit hole of time and disbelief.

“Keeping time, it’s no small thing…” Lydia Tár explains in the opening scene of Tár. “Time is the thing, time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me. See, I start the clock.” Going on, her nerves and shaky hands settling as she’s interviewed by real-life New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik (playing himself in the film) the fictional conducting maestro grandly compares herself to an ancient timepiece, with hands dictating every flutter of melody or subtlety of expression happening around her. “The reality is that right from the very beginning I know precisely what time it is,” she says, “and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.” 

Charting the downfall of a conductor accused of sexual misconduct while on the cusp of professional greatness, Tár can be viewed as a fable about cancel culture and power dynamics, projected through the lens of an influential woman who engrains herself into the corruption and coercion of the patriarchy to take a slice of the pie for herself. And yet it is also a story about time, and what happens when the steady tick-tock that underpins your own twisted version of reality disintegrates. For Lydia, who prides herself in presiding over time itself, losing control is the ultimate form of horror. As she half-quips to her young daughter Petra, playing make-believe with her stuffed toys set up in the formation of an orchestra, “They can’t all conduct, honey. It’s not a democracy”.

Despite the glossy polish of this elitist world that Tár occupies, with its brutalist concrete and strict orchestral hierarchies, little can be taken at face value. The treatment of time is warped: minimal final credits open the film, while relatively small events are magnified. Key chapters in Tár’s eventual downfall unfold much more rapidly over the space of a couple of moments, meanwhile, as if we’re watching patchy recreations of the protagonist’s furious, one-sided memories. Though Todd Field’s roving, documentary-style camerawork – most evident during a heated seminar at Juilliard – hints at realism, horror elements begin to creep into frame. 

Though a heavily-condensed version of this same scene later goes viral online, depicting Tár as cruel and offensive, omitting moments where she’s more nuanced, none of the students present appear to be filming it. The static shot of a red-headed woman watching Tár’s live interview in New York, meanwhile, bears a striking resemblance to the conductor’s former Accordion fellow Krista Taylor, who we later learn has taken her own life after Tár blacklisted her. Throughout the film, the same red-headed figure is seen multiple times, on the streets of New York, hiding half-seen next to Tár’s grand piano in her spare writing apartment, or lingering silently in the shadows as she comforts a frightened Petra. Certain terrifying occurrences – a metronome left ticking in an empty cupboard, a screaming woman in the woods, ominous symbols made out of children’s plasticine – are never explained. Is Tár truly being stalked by an obsessive former student, as she’d like to believe, or is she – as Dan Kois puts it for Slate – actually “haunted” by something far more supernatural? Did any of this really happen at all, or is Tár merely conjuring up visions of her own destruction? Certain events later on, Kois points out – such as the now-disgraced conductor calmly waiting in the wings ready to claim back her own stolen score on Berlin’s greatest classical stage, or the neat recurrence of the number five – may well feel unbelievable, because we’re supposed to disbelieve them. Though Tár shares few stylistic parallels with Aftersun, it still slips between nightmarish visions and skewed realism with similar ease.

Lydia Tár and her own warped perspective cannot be trusted. Despite her apparent scorn for pastiche, she also steals plenty from the past greats she hopes to one day rank amongst. Her observations about music are not always original ones – in the New Yorker live interview that opens the film, Tár’s compelling ideas around time and interpretation actually blend the teachings of the Shipibo-Conibo tribe with the engaging lecturing style of her mentor Leonard Bernstein. Even her apparent love of Mahler comes from her mentor. Though she spontaneously insists upon capturing a “less considered” album sleeve for her milestone live recording of Mahler’s 5th symphony – a upcoming career high – her supposedly candid pose, with the house lights meticulously half-down, is nabbed straight from the Italian composer Claudio Abbado and his own recording of the same piece. It couldn’t be any more contrived. Even her own name, we later learn, is a work of fiction. When the disgraced conductor flees to hide out in her wood-panelled childhood home in Staten Island, a high school hockey certificate reveals her birth name: Linda Tarr. 

While all art begs, borrows, recycles and even directly steals ideas from the past – as her Berliner Philharmoniker predecessor Andris Davis points out over lunch, even Beethoven is thought to have lifted bars from Mozart – Tár’s insistence on the myth of singular genius makes her seem infinitely more pretentious for doing so. She is a tangle of contradictions; though she preaches boldness, her life is as carefully curated as anyone else’s. She accuses Sebastian, the ageing conductor’s assistant she’s trying to oust, of having an eccentric “fetish” for deadstock pencils, yet has her own cupboard full of vintage Blackwings at home worth around £11.5k. Performatively humble in public, she carefully hoards her newspaper clippings in a specially-labelled sundries box behind closed doors. For all her talk of bravery and the power of emotional connection, she is too self-absorbed to extend an empathetic hand to her distraught neighbour, whose mother has just died after being left abandoned in terrible conditions, her emergency buzzer sounding over and over. Instead, Tár steals the cry for help and transforms its melody into the beginnings of her next composition. Though its claimed early in the film that she’s simply being ironic by staying in a New York suite favoured by Placido Domingo – an opera singer and conductor who was accused of widespread sexual harassment in 2019 – it becomes a kind of prophesy.

Lydia Tár maintains that she is the true victim in all of this, viewing herself as a renegade waging war with the “ultrasonic epistemic dissidents” stifling the openness of interpretation, instead shaping art to fit their own black and white agenda. And yet, in the film’s final third, we see Tár lose grip on the world she once commanded over so effortlessly, as the reality she once took for granted disintegrates around her. Olga Metkina, a talented young Russian cellist the conductor instantly becomes infatuated with, found her own hero Jacqueline du Pré on YouTube, a revelation which baffles Tár. “I don’t know who was conducting,” Olga says in an offhand comment that wounds her to her core. Rather than being swept up in her influence, Olga happily scribbles corrections onto Tár’s scores, sneaks out for a night out in New York without her after claiming she has jetlag, and ignores all direction during rehearsals. Tár may angrily claim that “there’s no glory for a robot”, but she also seems to love ruling over other people. When she’s faced with somebody she can’t manipulate at will, meanwhile, she quickly spirals. 

Though Tár may not face any definitive final reckoning, the film’s murky end scene is arguably a fitting fate, showing the deliciously comedic moment that the disgraced maestro winds up leading the score for Japanese video game Monster Hunter: World at a live orchestra screening. As she’s handed a pair of headphones by a stagehand, presumably providing a strict click-track to keep beat with the footage showing on big screens above her, she is transformed into the very thing she loathes the most: just another robot. The power to stop and start time has finally been taken away from her.

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