One indelible scene: The master class in ambiguity in ‘Tár’
By A.O. Scott
When Lydia Tár arrives at The Juilliard School in New York City 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 have watched her converse onstage with 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 has 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 cliches 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 onetime protege of Leonard Bernstein’s, 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, 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.
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 minicourse in the do’s 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.
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. Gopnik is another, as are 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.