Tár may be a 158-minute movie, but it starts rolling its credits at the beginning of the film. Not the usual type of opening credits, listing the names of movie stars and the director. Rather, Tár begins with what movie industry folks call “below-the-line” credits, showing the names of orchestra musicians and the various studio personnel. Most movies would save these credits for the end of the film, but Tár begins by listing every musician and laborer’s name, glowing white text on a black background.
More than a mere throwback to the once-common Hollywood movie practice of beginning with credits and closing the movie with a simple “The End” title card, Tár’s structure underscores its theme about the importance of the “little people.” It might be easy to forget that theme midway through the movie when Cate Blanchett’s towering performance — as the brilliant and self-destructive composer Lydia Tár — engulfs the audience. But by placing the credits at the start of the film, Tár insists that oft-ignored people matter — even if Lydia pretends that they do not.
Written and directed by Todd Field, his first new movie since 2006’s Little Children, Tár follows Lydia’s attempt to record an interpretation of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5,” but when evidence of Lydia’s abusive practices are exposed, her downfall begins. Blanchett appears in nearly every scene, and while we do get some sense of the way others feel, including her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and her long-suffering apprentice Francesca (Noémie Merlant), Tár largely concerns itself with the title character’s perspective.
Like its main character, Tár is a passionate and difficult film. Throughout the movie, Field includes whole scenes that most filmmakers would minimize, such as a long Q&A session between Lydia and real-life New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik. Instead of reducing these scenes to their barest elements, Field lets them breathe, both giving space for Lydia to expound upon her theories but also capturing the way others thrill and bristle at her.
We see that quality at work in an early scene featuring Lydia lecturing to her class at The Juilliard School. When a young composer admits that he struggles to conduct pieces written by composers known for their racism or sexism, Lydia responds in a manner that is both inspiring and terrifying. She invites the student to join her at the piano, teaching as she plays, describing the waves of emotion emanating from the piece. She urges the student to see the beauty beyond the composer’s character defects. Alternately, she belittles the student for tarnishing the art with something so petty as personality and morality. After declaring to the class that soulful composition requires sublimating one’s self to the composer, she sneers at the student, “Unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media.”
To Lydia, the student is just part of a new generation of “robots,” her pet term for those who don’t understand the music as well as she does. “Robots” are anyone who reacts to art differently than Lydia. Throughout the film, Field underscores the irony of Lydia's language by contrasting the irresistible force of her own personality with her utter disinterest in the responses of others.
As demonstrated in everything from her Julliard lectures to the passionate conducting sessions, love for music consumes every part of Lydia’s being.
For Christians, Lydia’s love of music is one of her most relatable qualities. Scripture repeatedly describes the power of music, from its ability to calm the troubled soul of King Saul and tear down the walls of Jericho, to Mary’s song of praise and the hymns shared by the first church. The Bible presents music as a way to inspire people to love God and their neighbor.
For Lydia, music does have transcendent qualities, connecting her to both her audience and the orchestra. But she fails to translate that love for the humanities into a love of humanity. Repeatedly, she shows that the word “robot” isn’t just a random insult for people with different tastes than her; Lydia calls people “robots” to dehumanize them.
Minor spoilers follow
Lydia’s tendency to dehumanize people is most pronounced in the slowly unfolding revelations about Krista (Sylvia Flote), a former student, whom Lydia groomed, discarded, and then blacklisted, leading to irreversible consequences. As much as Lydia tries to compartmentalize Krista as a mere inconvenience (“Let’s not get lost in minutia,” she says when ordering Francesca to delete incriminating emails), her dreams, haunted by images of Krista, suggest otherwise.
In these moments, Lydia embodies Paul’s teaching from 1 Corinthians 13. “If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Considering Lydia’s mastery of music, her life should be completely in tune. And yet, because of the way she treats people, her signature sound is that of a poorly tuned chime.
The German theologian Dorothee Sölle expounds upon this idea when she insists that “It is not possible … to tear God and love apart and to say that God is primary and permanent while love is some secondary, derivative thing.” As such, God serves as “the power, the spark, that animates that love.” In a phrase that seems tailor-made for people like Lydia, who resents the opinions of so-called “robots” because she finds them to be unoriginal, Sölle insists that once we understand God’s role in our love, “we will no longer be afraid of banality.”
“Banal” is the last word one can use to describe Tár, an incredible celebration of art. But it is not celebrating art for its own sake, nor is it just the product of Field’s direction or Blanchett’s performance. Rather, it demands that audiences show admiration for all forms of creation, whether they be dazzling conductors or “robots” who mechanically tap their toes. A work of art is nothing without all the humans who receive it and make it, even the little people whose names usually flash by in the closing seconds of a movie’s credits.