Cinema loves a genius, but genius is not particularly cinematic. Since the internal processes of thought do not manifest in any obvious visual form, there are various symbols that we have been trained to recognise as signifiers of creativity.
One is the frantic scribbling that indicates an overflow of ideas, the mind outpacing the expressive capacities of the body. Another is the neglect of quotidian matters like politeness or appearance. Tár exploits our familiarity with this trope by introducing us to a character concerned exclusively with externalities. At first, the film focuses primarily on Lydia Tár’s fastidious approach to self-presentation, as she selects clothes and album cover poses, and displays her charm in an onstage conversation with Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker Festival. We do not see her engaged in her actual area of expertise — conducting an orchestra — until an hour into the film.
Is Lydia Tár a genius? Subsequent revelations about the ways in which Lydia has shaped the material of her life into a more compelling narrative may prompt us to question the authenticity of her talent. But Tár also wants us to question the very concept of “genius”. On The Big Picture podcast, Sean Fennessey suggests that the decision to begin with the credits that usually end the film (listing the entire crew who worked behind the scenes) reflects Tár’s interrogation of the lone genius myth. Within the world of the film, this is shown through the many people working behind the scenes whose support Lydia uses (and abuses); chief among these is her wife Sharon, who at one point has to remind Lydia that they worked out the details of her ascent together: “You asked me what were the politics, what were the moves, how could we swing it.”
An alternative signifier of genius is proposed by Julian Glover’s Andris Davis, who tells Lydia that “Schopenhauer measured a man’s intelligence against his sensitivity to noise”. This suggestion triggers another cinematic trope: the conflation of genius and madness. Though she scoffs at Davis’ suggestion, Lydia is persecuted throughout Tár not only by whatever unknown person or force places a ticking metronome in her cupboard, but by a conspiracy of objects — the humming air conditioner, the whining car engine — who accelerate her mental decline with their noise, a taunting reminder that not everything can be controlled.
“Genius”, Tár repeatedly reminds us, is a matter of perception: the perception through which a talented individual processes the world (and its sounds), but also the perception of them: how they are viewed by the audience, the public, and the industry that benefits from propagating the myth.