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

Cate Blanchett’s character visits Juilliard to tackle the big questions about art, life and music-world rivalry.

The classroom scene in “Tár,” featuring Cate Blanchett and Zethphan Smith-Gneist, has become one of the most talked-about parts of the movie.Credit…Focus Features (stills)

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By A.O. Scott

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.

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