Power and responsibility in Tár

Barney Zwartz watches the new film Tár, and reflects on what it teaches about the dangers of power, and about moral responsibility.

I don’t go to many films, because I go to so many concerts. But I couldn’t miss Tár, which is largely about concerts and the processes behind them (among some highly contemporary themes). The film, which has received several Oscar nominations, is about the terrifying psychological collapse of Lydia Tár, the fictitious world famous conductor, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett. I have seldom felt so ambivalent about a film, which I suspect is part of director Todd Field’s intention.

The music scenes are fun, with Tár’s grandiloquent gestures clearly based on her supposed mentor, Leonard Bernstein, though musicians note that the conducting generally bears little relation to what the orchestra is doing, while rehearsals are unrealistic.

As the New York Times observes, it is a film about contemporary culture wars which nevertheless refuses to take part in them. In one electrifying and now notorious scene, she eviscerates a non-binary composer of colour who despises Bach as pale, male and stale. And – spoiler alert! – it was a bold choice to cast a woman as the villain who is grooming young women musicians for sex.

One of the main themes is the perennially relevant tension between power and responsibility. Unusually, I was still thinking about the film weeks later. The most important lessons: first, Lord Acton was absolutely right about power corrupting. Second, Lydia – who tells a child bully “God is watching you” – wasn’t told that enough herself as a child.

Voltaire was right: “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In other words, we have to know we are answerable for what we do and to take moral responsibility ourselves. Otherwise, like Lydia Tár, we delude ourselves and hurt others.