2022’s most unexpected setup for a movie joke comes in the credits for Tár, which scroll by at the beginning of the movie. It’s an innocuous detail — a song credit reading “©Capcom.” That’s an intriguing name to see in a mainstream, prestige-style drama about a world-famous conductor navigating fame, a sexual scandal, and a fall from grace. Fictional celebrity Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett) is a serious, even self-important intellectual, who’s seen early in the movie teaching at Juilliard, and being interviewed by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik in front of a large, rapt audience. She doesn’t seem like the kind of movie character who’d sit down to play a video game, or even know much about them.
Which makes the last few minutes of the movie particularly surprising for video game fans.
[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for Todd Field’s Tár.]
In the movie’s final scenes, Lydia steps onstage in what appears to be a low-rent concert hall in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. The lights go down over the orchestra she’s conducting. A series of video screens descend behind the musicians. And a familiar voice-over plays:
“Sisters and brothers of the Fifth Fleet, it’s time. I’ll keep my farewell brief — never was much with words. Once you board this ship, there’s no turning back. The next ground your feet will touch will be that of the New World.” The camera pans through an audience dressed in elaborate cosplay outfits, revealing that the famed Lydia Tár — one of the most famous conductors in this fictional world — has been reduced to conducting a Monster Hunter live event concert.
It’s an extremely funny moment. The opening credit is a small Chekhov’s gun that’s easy to miss, and as Lydia navigates the fallout of her sexual exploitation of her students, there’s no indication that this is where the movie is heading. In the lead-up to the event, as Lydia consults with the organizers and explores the venue, the audience is led to believe this is just a normal symphonic concert, just one with less of the glitz and glamour she’s been accustomed to with her conducting work in Berlin and New York.
So when Monster Hunter: World’s opening cutscene starts playing, and viewers see this silent, serious audience in their elaborate costumes, it’s hard not to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all, especially given the high stakes and grim story that precedes it. The audience’s first instinct is probably to view Lydia’s latest job as a humiliating downgrade. There’s the location: Lydia Tár is so toxic that she’s been exiled to a place where her name means nothing. And she’s conducting the music for Monster Hunter, a series where players hack dragons and dinosaurs to death, harvest them for parts and meat, and give the proceeds to an anthropomorphic cat assistant to make weapons with.
It is, to put it lightly, a sharp veer away from Lydia’s previous project, conducting a series of Gustav Mahler pieces with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. An initial reading of that ending suggests that she’s been reduced to conducting corporate background music for an audience that’s never going to fawn over her like the attendees at that New Yorker panel in the film’s opening scene.
As tempting as it is to read the Monster Hunter: World concert as a humiliation for her, though, that interpretation doesn’t show the full story. Writer-director Todd Field doesn’t pick any clear sides: Lydia is clearly a talented, capable conductor, but she apparently grooms young students for transactional sexual relationships, and is willing to ruin their careers if they offend her. It’s worth noting that she treats the Monster Hunter: World concert like any other assignment: She studies the music, rehearses with intention and focus, and discusses the work progress with the other performers. Even if she does think the subject is beneath her, she gives it as much attention as she gives Mahler.
But for an audience, what exactly is the difference between dressing in your finest for Mahler and cosplaying for a Monster Hunter show? Culturally speaking, people tend to think of movie and game scores as separate from symphonic music, even though they use the same instruments and techniques. Games like Bloodborne, Journey, and Final Fantasy 14 incorporate multiple classical compositional styles and techniques, from waltzes to choral chanting. Lydia herself is noted to be an EGOT winner, meaning she has worked in film and television, maybe even on a musical. And both are, in the end, fairly pricey experiences for the audience, even if Monster Hunter is on the lower end.
A classical fan might say the difference is in the music, but at the end of the day, is there that much space between John Williams and Gustav Mahler? The key figure connecting this all is Lydia’s inspiration, famed composer Leonard Bernstein. As The Daily Beast points out, the impetus for her decision to keep working seems to come after she views a favorite old VHS tape of one of Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” made to help introduce the great composers to children. Bernstein himself was a big proponent of bringing classical music to the masses. What is a Monster Hunter concert but yet another venue to share this joy with other people?
Many critics have interpreted Tár as a movie decrying “cancel culture,” but reducing Field’s movie to a screed does him and the character of Lydia Tár a great disservice. Yes, Lydia has been “canceled” by the end, removed from her prestigious Berlin position, and told by her publicity team to lay low until the scandal passes over. But Field is more interested in her as a figure who cultivates power, and in exploring how that coincides with the myth of the great artist.
The film suggests that Lydia isn’t really in her career for the music anymore, and it’s become a tool to feed her ego. Her face and name are prominently displayed on the cover of the Mahler recording she’s working on throughout the film. In an advertisement for that concert later on, she’s placed directly opposite Mahler as the headliner for the event. When she starts advocating for a young cellist to take a prominent place in her orchestra, it’s more out of infatuation than for her talent. (Though she is clearly talented.) Lydia’s opening speech during that New Yorker interview has her proclaiming that when she conducts, she’s in control of time itself.
Music, especially orchestral music, is an expression of this power for her: The musicians must follow what is on the sheet music, and while the conductor must too, it’s ultimately her decision whether they repeat a segment or “get rid of it all together,” as well as whether they speed up the tempo. She even goes as far as to move a trumpet player off stage and behind the scenes in order to get the perfect echoing, distant sound she wants. Music itself has become a form of control for the character, an ultimate display of her power. After all, what’s more powerful than controlling time? She obviously loves the music, but she loves it because she can bend it to her will, and control how the audience hears it.
Fear of that loss of control permeates the entire movie. Lydia continuously experiences sounds she cannot fully control: a hidden metronome ticking in her apartment, a neighbor’s irritating doorbell, an unseen woman screaming in what sounds like terror or pain while Lydia is out for a run. Fear of losing control — over her artistry, over her reputation, over her life — dominates her character, and ultimately leads to her downfall. It’s what spurs her to delete the incriminating evidence that she blacklisted her deceased former student, even going as far as to demand her assistant’s laptop so she can surreptitiously search her emails.
Lydia’s ultimate triumph is in conquering this fear, and getting the chance to regain her status by loosening her grip on both the music and the people under her.
Whether she deserves that chance — exactly which of the accusations against her are true — is left ambiguous. There’s another world in which she hits the cancel-culture circuit, becoming another in the long line of celebrities and artists bemoaning the fact that their actions have consequences. She could double down on her behavior, or compose exclusively behind the scenes. But that would just be an extension of her ego trip, a way to re-create the bubble in which she’s the most important person in the world.
Ultimately, though, Field isn’t concerned with whether what happens to her is justified. His startling, unlikely Monster Hunter: World ending suggests a woman purifying herself of anything but her art and her audience, relinquishing her need for total control. Only once she’s rededicated herself to the music can Lydia return to being the master she once was. It’s possible that being that master is the problem itself, and that’s an issue she may still need to navigate. But ultimately, conducting a video game concert isn’t the humiliation viewers have suggested it is. It’s a way to reclaim what she loves about music, without the parts of it that poisoned her.
Tár is in theaters now.