One Indelible Scene: The Master Class in Ambiguity in ‘Tár’

When Lydia Tár arrives at the Juilliard School to teach a master class in conducting, we know her about as well as the students do. Like them, we are aware — about 20 minutes into the film that bears her name — of her fame and exalted status. They, of course, live in a fictional world in which her celebrity is established, to the extent that their own professional aspirations are shaped by her example. But now they have a chance to encounter her in person. It doesn’t go well.

The Juilliard episode is the fourth extended scene in “Tár.” Like the ones that come before, it presents Lydia, a prominent conductor and composer, in a more-or-less public setting. In due time, we’ll peer in on her private life and ponder its relevance to her work and reputation, but for now we know her as a poised paragon of artistic accomplishment. We’ve watched her converse onstage with the writer Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker Festival, flirt with a fan at a reception and spar over lunch with a colleague who is also an important philanthropic patron. In between these lingered-over moments are snippets of cellphone video with anonymous text commentary. The source and meaning of these words and images are unclear, but they produce a tremor of paranoia. We’re not the only ones watching Lydia.

Later, a deceptively edited video of the master class will go viral, contributing to the collapse of Lydia’s career as her abusive and dishonest behavior comes to light. The scene itself, among those who have seen “Tár,” has achieved a similar notoriety. It’s become one of the most talked-about parts of the film. The main conflict — an argument between Lydia and an earnest, anxious student named Max, played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist — seems to crystallize the movie’s interest in a familiar kind of clash, one that invites clichés about cancel culture, identity politics and white privilege.

But like everything else in “Tár,” this episode of generational and ideological strife is more complicated than it might seem. And also simpler. Lydia, a one-time protégé of Leonard Bernstein, insists on the power of music to produce states of feeling and modes of experience that can’t easily be reduced to anything else. Todd Field, the director of “Tár,” has similar intuitions about film. He and Cate Blanchett, who as Lydia occupies nearly every frame of this 158-minute film, reverse the usual patterns of text and subtext. It’s not that there’s more to “Tár” than meets the eye and ear, with extra meanings hidden beneath the surface. Everything is right there on the screen and the soundtrack, arranged to confound and complicate your expectations.

Lydia’s too. She strolls onto the classroom stage as eight young musicians, conducted by Max, are laying down what Lydia will call the “bed of strings” of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Ro.” Commanding the students’ attention effortlessly, Lydia is comfortable in her own charisma, confident in her opinions and intellect — to the point of hubris, but we don’t know that yet.

‘Tár’: A Timely Backstage Drama

Cate Blanchett plays a world-famous conductor who is embroiled in a #MeToo drama in the latest film by the director Todd Field.

  • Review: “We don’t care about Lydia Tár because she’s an artist; we care about her because she’s art,” our critic writes about the film’s protagonist.
  • An Elusive Subject: Blanchett has stayed one step ahead of audiences by constantly staying in motion. In “Tár,” she is as inscrutable as ever.
  • Back Into the Limelight: The film marks Field’s return to directing, 16 years after “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children” made waves.
  • The Song of the Fall?: A 120-year-old symphony by the composer Gustav Mahler is finding new life with unlikely listeners after a star turn in the film.

The first thing she does is establish her dominance, preparing for Max’s thorough humiliation. He’s nervous, smiling, eager to oblige as she asks him why he chose Juilliard and then suggests that it might have been for the “brand.” Her tone is jocular, but her aggression is unmistakable. She ridicules his choice of music — we’ll come back to that — and pleads with him to consider exploring older, more canonical figures. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, for example.

That name turns out to be a provocation. Max, who defines himself as a “BIPOC, pangender person,” says that Bach’s reputation for misogyny and his cisgender white male identity make it hard for him to appreciate the composer’s music. At this moment, the script edges toward an easy satire of the young. There are Gen Xers and baby boomers who have encountered — or at least heard stories about — members of succeeding generations who refuse to read the novels of Edith Wharton, see the films of Woody Allen or worship at the altar of Pablo Picasso. Their critique of the canon is often caricatured and misunderstood, and Max may embody the shibboleths of his elders as much as he does the attitude of his peers. His objection to Bach, in any case, serves as bait for the audience and for Lydia.

She seizes on it as a teaching moment, and her response is itself a mini-course in the dos and don’ts of contemporary pedagogy. At times, she is bullying and sarcastic, haranguing the class about the fallacies of identity and failing or refusing to read the sensitivities in the room. But she also tries, in good faith, to reach the students where they are. Rather than revert to an argument from authority, browbeating Max with the eternal fact of Bach’s greatness, she invites him to sit next to her at the piano while she demonstrates the complexity and power of his music. In Bach, she says, the question — illustrated by a rising, unresolved musical phrase that replicates the intonation of an asking voice — is always more interesting than the answer.

This is true of art in general. The puzzles, paradoxes and mysteries are what keep it alive. A lot of cultural criticism — by which I mean not only the considered responses of professionals but the immediate reactions of viewers — tacks in the opposite direction. We are eager to find an answer, assign a meaning, take a side. This scene seems to be urging us to do just that, to share Lydia’s irritation with Max, so shallow in his certainty and so ill-equipped to defend his position.

We might also, in the moment and especially when we look back on it, squirm at Lydia’s self-satisfaction. She treats the master class as an occasion to perform her own brilliance, a temptation that can be fatal to the actual work of teaching, which finally rests on the canceling of ego. The vanity Lydia displays here, which is undeniably seductive, will contribute to her eventual undoing, and we may feel a premonition of that as we watch her pacing and preening, unaware of the puzzlement and indifference in the eyes of her spectators.

Really, though, the scene — like the movie — is much weirder than that. It may seem that Field and Blanchett are collaborating in a topical tale of crime and punishment, which the debate about the relevance of Bach’s behavior to his canonical status recapitulates in miniature. Later, we will find Lydia arguing the other side of the question. At lunch in a Berlin restaurant, she reminds a retired maestro that the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once threw a woman down a flight of stairs. Her much older male colleague wonders what that has to do with Schopenhauer’s thought. The argument, as at Juilliard, reaches an impasse.

As will any similar argument about Lydia herself, who is a formidably talented artist and also a narcissistic, amoral monster. But neither her greatness nor her awfulness is what is most interesting about her. Shortly after “Tár” opened, The Cut published an amusing, much-mocked article by Brooke LaMantia, who claimed to have watched the movie under the impression that Lydia Tár was a real person. Anthony Lane began his review in The New Yorker with the tongue-in-cheek implication that she just might be. More recently, Dan Kois wrote an essay in Slate suggesting that the last part of the film — the part that chronicles Lydia’s professional and personal undoing — takes place in her head, which is to say in a reality distinct from the literal, social world in which the rest of the movie is set.

I don’t really buy that, any more than I believe that anyone really thought there was a real Lydia Tár, but Kois, Lane and LaMantia get at the essential uncanniness of “Tár,” which seems to call into question the nature of reality itself.

And that brings us back to the unseen person whose presence is felt in that tense session: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, an actual living Icelandic composer who may have acquired new fame as Lydia Tár’s nemesis. The trashing of Thorvaldsdottir occupies much of the scene. Lydia sneers at her “au courant” trendiness, her “hot” good looks, a score notation that “sounds like René Redzepi’s recipe for reindeer.” A conductor performing her music is like a salesman “selling a car without an engine.” At one point Max meekly notes that Thorvaldsdottir conducted an earlier master class in the same course, and it seems possible that poor Max is an innocent victim in a high-powered music-world beef.

Maybe it’s also the case that Lydia is a proxy in a similar war. Maybe Field can’t stand Anna Thorvaldsdottir, or maybe Hildur Gudnadottir, the Icelandic composer who scored “Tar,” feels that way. Iceland is a small country; contemporary classical music is a small world.

I won’t speculate further, except to note that Thorvaldsdottir might function as what devotees of a different kind of movie like to call an Easter egg. Adam Gopnik is another, as are Leonard Bernstein and the Juilliard School itself. They appear as tokens, clues, nudges at the viewer who might not be paying the right kind of attention. They all belong to the world outside “Tár” — our world — and their presence inside the movie is more than merely allusive.

Lydia Tár exists as if on a folded-over page in that world, where the correct answer to the perennially misunderstood question about the distinction between art and life is written in invisible ink. She’s as real as it gets.

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