In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Tár, we look at important motifs that help us understand the film.
- Lydia Tár/Linda Tarr – Cate Blanchett
- Sharon Goodnow – Nina Hoss
- Francesca Lentini – Noémie Merlant
- Eliot Kaplan – Mark Strong
- Olga Metkina – Sophie Kauer
- Andris Davis – Julian Glover
- Sebastian Brix – Allan Corduner
- Adam Gopnik – Adam Gopnik
- Written by – Todd Field
- Directed by – Todd Field
Important motifs in Tár
The surreal and supernatural
Tár begins with the shot of a phone that’s live streaming Lydia sleeping on a plane. The text on the phone:
- Commenter: what time did she get up this am
- Person With Phone: i wasnt with her s was
- C: our girls an early riser isnt she
- P: haunted
- C: ha you mean she has a conscience
- P: maybe
- C: you still love her then
The person with the phone is implied to be Krista, Lydia’s young mistress. Who Lydia’s talking to isn’t explored. It could be Francesca, the assistant, which would explain the use of “our girl”. The reference to “s” being with Lydia is Sharon, Lydia’s wife. (It should be noted that it could be Francesca streaming and Krista commenting. But the perspective shots happen prior to Krista’s passing and never happen after, while Francesca is still alive).
There are two important things here and they reinforce one another. First, it’s the spying on Lydia while she sleeps. The voyeuristic nature of the shot. Second, is the use of the word “haunted”. The idea of someone being haunted means they’re being followed by a thing or a feeling. The presence is there, whether “there” is in the room or in the mind. The commenter says “you mean she has a conscience” because it’s the most realistic application of the concept of haunting. The idea of a physical haunting is just that—an idea. Something for literature and film. Or a poetic description of someone’s presence, like “The guy haunts the gym, he’s there every day.”
So much happens in Tár that the early text message conversation is easy to forget. Eventually, after Krista’s s**cide, the idea of Lydia being haunted takes a turn to the literal. The manifestations are quick and easy to overlook, but they add up. It’s the unseen woman screaming in the park. The activation of the metronome in the night. Mysterious buzzing sounds. The actual glimpses of ghostly Krista. Or the footfalls and growls of a dog in the basement of a seemingly abandoned apartment complex.
The reason for these things isn’t explicit but comes back to that initial phone conversation. They’re manifestations of Lydia’s conscience. The guilt she feels over Krista’s demise. Outwardly, she tries to ignore that Krista’s gone. But internally, she’s stricken. Todd Field makes the choice to externalize her haunting sense of guilt through surreal moments of haunting. In that way, Tár has a similar concept to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story The Tell-Tale Heart.
Shoulder pain and crocodiles
Two seemingly disconnected things actually have the same meaning. That’s Lydia’s shoulder pain after her fall and the crocodiles mentioned when she’s in the Philippines. How are they similar?
This is the conversation around Lydia’s shoulder pain:
- Doctor: You’ve damaged some nerves. The burning sensation you’re feeling is called notalgia paresthetica.
- Lydia: Nostalgia?
- D: Notalgia. No S.
- L: Well how do we treat it?
- D: We don’t. Eventually, it goes away.
Now keep that in mind for the conversation about the crocodiles.
- Lydia: Maybe we could stop somewhere and take a swim.
- Guide: Yeah, at the waterfall. But not in the river.
- L: Why? Is there something wrong with the water?
- G: No. There are crocodiles.
- L: Oh. I didn’t think they’d be this far inland.
- G: They escaped from Marlon Brando movie.
- L: Wow. That was a long time ago.
- G: They survive.
So you have this instance of shoulder pain that becomes accidentally associated with nostalgia, which is a longing for or reflection on the past. And there’s no way to treat it. You just have to wait for it to go away. Then another instance of crocodiles that have persisted in a river for far longer than you’d expect. The Brando movie in question is Apocalypse Now, which was filmed between 1976 and 1977. Meaning the crocodiles have been there for 46 years.
Lydia’s main issue in Tár is the fallout of her tryst with Krista. Lydia’s haunted by Krista’s death, both figuratively and literally. The memory of Krista is soaked with nostalgia and trauma. It’s a memory with teeth. Who knows how long it will hurt? All you can do is wait and see if the pain eventually goes away.
As random as the shoulder pain and crocodiles are, they’re simply other externalizations of Lydia’s internal state.
There are two major speeches about music. One at the beginning and one near the end.
At the end, Lydia’s back home on Staten Island, and she watches a video of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein, following a performance, speaks to the audience. He says:
Didn’t you feel triumphant? Now we can really understand what the meaning of music is. It’s the way it makes you feel when you hear it. Finally, we’ve taken that last giant step. And we’re there. We know what music means now. And we don’t have to know a lot of stuff about sharps and flats and chords and all that business in order to understand music, if it tells us something. And the most wonderful thing of all is that there’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. And some of those feelings are so special and so deep that they can’t even be described in words. You see, we can’t always name the things we feel. Sometimes we can. We can say we feel joy, pleasure, peacefulness, whatever. Love. Hate. But, every once in a while, we have feelings that are so deep and so special that we have no words for them. And that’s where music is so marvelous. Because music names them for us, only in notes, instead of in words. It’s all in the way music moves. You must never forget that music is movement, always going somewhere, shifting and changing and flowing from one note to another. And that movement can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can. And here we’re going to play you a—
Now let’s jump back to the beginning, during the New Yorker interview with Adam Gopnik. Gopnik asks Lydia about the process of discovery regarding her upcoming performance of Mahler’s Fifth. This is Lydia’s answer:
We start on Monday. With this one, it really is about trying to read the tea leaves of Mahler’s intention. I mean, we know a great deal about this with his other symphonies. You know, he was so inspired by the poetry of Rücket that for years he didn’t set another author to music. But all of this changes with the Five. The Five is a mystery. And the only clue he leaves us is on the cover of the manuscript itself. Yes, the dedication to his new wife, Alma. So if you’re gonna partner with Mahler on his fifth symphony, the first thing you must do is try to understand that very complex marriage.
Gopnik: And would you say you have a different interpretation of that marriage than Bernstein did?
Lydia: You mentioned my ethnographic fieldwork in the Amazon. Well, Adam, the Shipibo-Konibo only receive an icaro, or song, if the singer is there, right? On the same side of the spirit that created it. And in that way, the past and present converge. It’s the flip sides of the same cosmic coin. That definition of fidelity makes sense to me. But Lenny, he believed in teshuvah. The Talmudic power to reach back into time and to transform the significance of one’s past deeds. So when he played the Adagietto at Robert Kennedy’s funeral, it ran for 12 minutes. He treated it as a mass. And, you know, if you listen to a recording of it, you will no doubt feel the tragedy and the pathos. And, of course, that interpretation was very true for Mahler later in life, after the professional bottom dropped out and Alma had left him for Gropius. But, as I said before, we are dealing with time. And this piece was not born into aching tragedy. It was born into young love.
Bernstein talks about music being an expression of emotions. With that in mind, it makes sense why he would turn the Adagietto at Robert Kennedy’s funeral into a mass. He was using the notes to convey the depth of his feelings. It wasn’t about transforming one’s past deeds. It was about expressing what’s in your heart, right then and there. It seems that’s something that Lydia forgot. Rather than express herself through music, she’s become obsessed with time and her control over time. That means music, for her, is about control. Specifically the power she has over time and the orchestra and the audience.
Lydia mentions that her right arm is the arm that marks time, that starts it and stops it. It’s that same arm that’s injured, later in the movie, after her fall. The arm stricken with notalgia paresthetica. Or “nostalgia”. This injury coincides with the greater loss of control she suffers in her life as the details of her relationship with Krista come out and the fallout begins. Which is why she runs back to Staten Island. Runs back to Lenny. And is reminded that music was never about time and control. Rather, it’s about emotion and movement.
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