Tar: You Want to Dance the Mask, You Must Service the Composer

Rating: 4/5 Falcons

Annabel Abbott Howe, Contributing Writer

The film Tar opens with four minutes of credits. Surprisingly, this placement is not what makes them unusual. Credits typically play in order of their perceived importance, beginning with the director and lead actor. Tar’s credits, however, begin with production assistants, assistant editors, caterers—people who are usually not perceived as very important in a film’s production. Todd Fields’ choice to start with the credits perfectly sets up what is to come. Tar explores the idea of power. Who has it? Who doesn’t? And how quickly can it all be lost? 

Before we meet protagonist Lydia Tar, we learn about her through an impressive introduction that the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik delivers to a rapt audience. Interspersed between these shots of Gopnik is the back of a redheaded woman in the crowd. Although we do not know who this woman is and we cannot see her face, we sense her power in the way she surveys the crowd as each accomplishment is read out. We don’t know this yet, but the redhead will be the reason why Lydia Tar will soon not only never be chosen to do anything like an interview with the New Yorker, but why she will also become irrelevant to the public, and her accomplishments will become the mistakes investors and colleges try hastily to cover up. 

Todd Fields never tries to make statements to the audience. Instead, everything is left ambiguous.

The Lydia Tar who steps on stage, expertly played by Cate Blanchett, is oblivious to this fact—and drunk on her own ego and power. She is a world-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Although she has a wife and child, as soon as the interview scene ends, we see an exchange between Tar and an admiring young woman. She holds on to the woman’s hand for only two extra beats, but it becomes obvious that Tar is not someone who lets her power lie limp. This is one of the parts of the film I love most. Todd Fields never tries to make statements to the audience. Instead, everything is left ambiguous. Through subtle glances, posture, and tone, he creates a puzzle that is difficult to comprehend until the last scene. 

It would be easy for a viewer to leave the movie and assume that the final form this puzzle takes is an argument for, or against, cancel culture. I would argue, however, that any attempt to boil this movie down to making a single argument would be misreading its intent. While she is undoubtedly a genius making brilliant contributions to the world of music, Lydia Tar simultaneously composes her own demise. We watch as she persistently chooses the self-serving decision rather than the right one, and so, in the end, has only herself to blame. She is the perpetrator and victim, and Fields forces us to see that these seemingly contradictory roles can be inhabited by a single individual. 

The strength of this movie is its refusal to take a clear side, to play judge or jury. That is left to the viewer, and herein lies its strength. It is simply a story about a woman who is misled by the illusion that standing behind a podium makes you immune to accountability. She thinks the metronome does not control her, so the metronome destroys her. The beauty of this is that, even after the metronome destroys her, she is still bound to it. Despite being exiled from the world, she must conduct, because even if what she is conducting is a video game score to an audience of cosplayers, she is still following the same beat of the metronome.