Lydia Tár, a renowned classical musician and music director played by Cate Blanchett, has a lot on her plate. She’s not only the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, an august post formerly held by luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, she’s also an “EGOT,” a person who’s won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. In other words, she’s written as much music as she’s conducted, and if that weren’t enough, she runs a school in New York City dedicated to “grooming” (choice of words no accident) young women to go onto be music directors themselves, and teaches a class at Julliard. My reaction hearing about Lydia Tár’s resume was similar to my reaction to hearing that Wilt Chamberlain slept with 20,000 women. “There isn’t enough time in the day.” But there’s where I’m wrong. In the long interview that opens the movie, with real life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, who plays himself straight but comes off like a clownish parody of a New York intellectual, Lydia Tár explains that her job as a conductor basically makes her a time lord. “The music can’t start without me. The music can’t stop without me,” she says. Lydia Tár has enough time because she commands time.
What Lydia Tár doesn’t command is the younger generation. In her class at Julliard, Cate Blanchett, in all of her flamboyant Aryan majesty, plays Lydia Tár playing Lydia Tár, an act that has brought her to the pinnacle of the artistic world. But this time the audience, her Generation Z students, aren’t buying it. We watch the transformation of a literal goddess, the privileged receptacle of the entirety of western tradition, transformed into just another out of touch old Boomer. When Max, one of her students, a tall good looking young man with a nervous leg played by newcomer Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist, tells her that “as a pangender BIPOC” he can’t perform Bach, Bach being a white, Protestant German male who oppressed both his wives by siring 20 children, she responds with a discourse on the importance of individual genius that we all agree with, but simultaneously see as a performance with a bit of a missed note. Max may be an absolute fool, but he’s also young, and the younger generation, who regenerate society with sex, idealism and passion, have decided that race and gender are more important than individual genius. They have pushed Lydia Tár and her beloved western tradition to the edge of the cliff, where she’s desperately hanging on for dear life
The rest of the movie shows them stomping on her fingers. As far as hostile young people go, Max is the least of Lydia Tár’s problems. Much more pressing is Francesca Lentini, a woman in her late 20s who we’re told is one of Tár’s designated successors at the Berlin Philharmonic, but who at the moment just seems liker her lackey and personal assistant. Francesca, played by Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the surface seems severe and competent, the kind of summer intern you’d actually hire permanently after she graduates, but surfaces can be deceiving. Francesca is also in constant touch, by smart phone of course, with another young woman named Krista, one of Tár’s former students who Tár may or may not have had an affair with, who may or may not have been an obsessed stalker, but who Lydia Tár has destroyed, blacklisted in the world of classical music and prevented from holding any job above the director of a local church orchestra or community theater. After Krista commits suicide, and Tár responds with astonishing callousness, Francesca’s passive aggressive resentment at long last explodes into out and out rage, and she begins plotting with Krista’s parents for Tár’s downfall.
Lydia Tár’s destruction has both a social and an artistic component. On the outside, we see her smeared in a highly edited TikTok video that “goes viral,” sued by Krista’s parents, and ultimately dismissed as director of the Berlin Philharmonic in favor of Eliot Kaplan, a billionaire investor who’s finally managed to buy his way to artistic success. But it’s Lydia Tár’s that is the soul of the movie. Tár’s confrontation with Max at Julliard was revealing. For Max, Bach was a “misogynist” because he sired a lot of children. For Lydia, a lesbian who will never have her own biological children, but like many gay men and women, has substituted art for procreation, that’s what made Bach worth studying, his ability generate life, to regenerate himself in his children, and ultimately his wife’s herculean ability to survive the rigors of 18th Century childbirth (Bach’s second wife, with whom he had 12 children, outlived him by a decade). Max, who’s chosen identity politics over life, can be dismissed. But it’s Olga, another young person, a talented Russian cellist played by real life cellist Sophie Kauer, who ultimately drives Lydia Tár over the edge.
In the artistic world, being “sexy” will get you a long way. In fact, it’s pretty much the entire point of artistic creation. What Millennials and members of Generation Z don’t quite understand, and why, with some exceptions, they’re boring, passive consumers of superhero movies and bad Star Wars reboots, “robots” as Lydia accurately points out, is that if you don’t want to fuck what’s up on screen, you’re not really experiencing “art.” You’re consuming a product. Olga, unlike Max, has real talent. In fact, she’s massively talented, and the only time the movie really comes alive is when she’s on screen. There’s no contradiction between Lydia Tár’s wanting to fuck Olga and wanting to promote her in the world of classical music. Lydia recognizes talent when she sees it and wants to do what she’s done all of her life, bring art and beauty to the rest of the world. But even within the framework of her own assumptions and ideology, the world has moved on from Lydia Tár. Olga will kiss the old lady’s ass as much she has to to get the spot in the Berlin Philharmonic but she’s most decidedly not under Tár’s spell. In fact, Tár no longer has a spell. She’s lost the ability to bewitch, to command an audience, or even to enjoy music.
Indeed, Lydia Tár’s keen sense of hearing, which has propelled her into the artistic stratosphere, is now her oppressor. Cut off from the world of youth, sex, beauty, creativity, she no longer hears symphonies and string quartets. She hears screams, stray out of place metronomes, unexplained groans from the next apartment, a frail elderly woman in the care of her Boomer daughter dying very loudly. Things fall apart. Mere aural anarchy has been unleashed upon Lydia Tár’s existence. Young people, who she has both exploited and promoted her over the years, have rejected her. Frail elderly people, who once exploited and promoted Lydia Tár, aren’t giving up the ghost without making a long, ugly moan. In the end, Lydia Tár finds herself expelled from the west itself, from the European elite that once accepted her, into an Asian exile, out of which which she may, or may not regenerate herself.