In the opening moments of Tár, world-renowned composer Lydia Tár describes time as the “essential piece of interpretation” for conducting. She should know — conducting is something that she is very, very good at. She’s perhaps one of the best in the world.
Lydia is always in the process of conducting, even when not in front of her orchestra. Her talent makes it so she lives in unfathomable comfort: her clothes hang loosely and comfortably from her whilst still signaling luxury, and her multiple houses are so tasteful and obviously curated that they sometimes look almost depressing, with so much gray cement nothingness and so many framed black-and-white prints.
But even beyond her aesthetic tastes, Lydia is a conductor and composer of situations. She’s a controlling force, even when she’s pretending she isn’t. “Blind” auditions end up magically benefitting the prettiest woman she glanced at in the bathroom. When closest to Lydia, her personal assistant is up for the role of assistant conductor, but when she is no longer Lydia’s favorite, the role suddenly needs to go to someone more experienced.
And yet, for all her understanding of the importance of time in conducting, Lydia seems unaware that time will come for her, too. As she relishes in her power, she believes delusional things — like deleting a few emails and shrugging off a few accusations about continued predatory behavior toward young women under her power will be enough to keep her safe. She lives with archaic fantasies in which constant online documentation doesn’t exist and where the artist and their art will prevail over personal matters. And yet, subconsciously, Lydia is also plagued by the ticking of her metronome at night, perhaps because deep down she knows it is marking the time left before all this inevitably blows up, before Lydia reaches the end and the settling of her abusive score.
Tár doesn’t perfectly manage its attempt to grasp the current cultural shift in how we deal with artists who abuse their power, but it’s sharper than a lot of other attempts. Many have (rightfully) criticized the heavy-handed Juilliard scene in which “woke” students attempt to push back on the problematic actions of historically renowned composers while Lydia defends their art. But while the scene is imperfect, I found it resonated in some of the final moments of the film.
In the final chapter of Tár, Lydia is eating shit and living in relative shame after being exposed and having a semi-public meltdown. She undertakes a part-rebrand, part-disappearance and goes to the Philippines. As she rushes along a river, her guide explains that they cannot go for a swim as she requests because Marlon Brando made a movie here once and some crocodiles were let loose for the production. Marlon Brando’s is a striking name to be dropped; one of the most quintessential movie stars in history, some particularly off-putting allegations were made of him in the years after his death.
“Wow, that was a long time ago,” Lydia muses.
“They survive,” her guide offers with a nod and a shrug.
The figurative river Lydia swam in — the one where she conducted and composed and orchestrated to her whims — has been tainted for a long time. The culture shifts, and maybe the means and ability to point out the crocodiles get a bit easier, but they survive. To not reckon with them at all — whether prominent abusers now or abusers long gone — is to simply turn a blind eye, to keep our hands in the river and risk being snapped at ourselves.