The New York Festival hasn’t even officially started, and it’s already turned self-reflexive. This year’s “spotlight on documentary” sidebar—which may have the effect of ghettoizing non-fiction movies, but practically speaking is just a way for NYFF to squeeze in a few more films—includes Ethan Hawke’s endearing documentary Seymour: An Introduction (Grade: B), a portrait of the 87-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein, who retired from public performances at the height of his professional achievement.
He still plays privately, though, and Seymour: An Introduction is an ode to Bernstein’s almost monastic devotion to his art. The soft-spoken yet voluble artist notes that he’s lived in the same one-room apartment for 57 years. Though you wouldn’t know it from his warm, engaging presence, Bernstein argues that the greatest musicians are inherently difficult to deal with, and often basket cases. The possibility of musical perfection is too stark a contrast against what Bernstein calls “the unpredictable nature of the social world.” He also offers a vigorous defense of stage fright—at least for musicians who are prepared and thus “have a right to be nervous.”
In some ways, the film serves as a gentle contrast to Whiplash, another film about the relentless pursuit of musical perfection; that Sundance winner screens in the festival later this week. Although Seymour: An Introduction doesn’t get too technical in its musical details, it’s still fascinating to watch Bernstein try out Steinways, seeking the perfect sound for a rare recital. Hawke’s occasional appearances on-screen, in which he discusses how his subject’s lessons relate to his own development as an actor, seem like unwarranted intrusions. But this is still an uncommonly engaging look at the creative process—and seeing Bernstein give a Q&A after the screening was a thrill.
Another, more coded portrait of an artist is Life Of Riley (Grade: B), the final film from Alain Resnais, who died in March. It’s of a piece with his last decade’s work: Adapted from another Alan Ayckbourn play and shot on sound stages (with occasional supplementary shots of the real English countryside), it experiments with the boundaries between film and theater. In close-ups, characters are frequently shown against hand-drawn backdrops. Several members of Resnais’ stock company are accounted for, including Sabine Azéma, his wife, and André Dussollier. The plot concerns a community theater troupe whose members learn that their friend George, who never appears, is dying. To varying degrees, most of the women have histories with him, and light romantic chaos ensues in the movie’s second half, as George—an obvious stand-in for Resnais, like the unseen playwright in his arch You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet—delights in pulling strings from off-screen.
Life Of Riley is slow to get going, but it has considerably more charm than Wild Grass or Private Fears In Public Places. This is coming from someone who’s found most late Resnais to be airless, stagy, and stilted—a loss for cinephiles who treasure the director’s innovative montage and his genius with light and shadow, on display in such classics as Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is showing at NYFF in a new 4K restoration. Yet the relative larkiness of Life Of Riley turns out to be a kind of secret asset, with Resnais using Ayckbourn’s rather threadbare farce as a springboard for his own playful narrative ruptures and musings on eternal youth. The film, which premiered at Berlin before Resnais’ death, now seems more than a tad eerie. The last shot is of a grave.
Another movie that sometimes feels like a cinematic séance, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini (Grade: B-) is the director’s second biopic this year. Like the superior Welcome To New York, a veiled film à clef about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it centers on a politically galvanizing figure who was known for his sexual frankness. Ferrara’s tribute is a bit of a ramble, floating freely through Pier Paolo Pasolini’s politics, writings, and personal life at the time he was editing and facing censors on Salò.
Laced with undigested references to Pasolini’s movies, it stages scenes from Porno-Teo-Kolossal (with music from The Gospel According To St. Matthew), which Pasolini was working on at the time of his 1975 murder. Ferrara’s fragmented approach to biography is probably the only way of doing justice to his often-inscrutable subject. A journalist interviewing Pasolini (played by a typically intense Willem Dafoe, mostly speaking English) describes the filmmaker’s work as having “the effect of sunlight filtering through dust—beautiful, but hard to understand.” That’s not quite the effect of the film, but Ferrara’s take on Pasolini, beyond an affirmation of the latter’s greatness, is elusive.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (Grade: B-) will probably be of more interest to those who have an inherent fascination with electronic dance music than those who do not, but its true subject is the devotion it takes to create any type of art. The film’s protagonist, Paul (Félix De Givry), is loosely based on Hansen-Løve’s brother and co-screenwriter, Sven; the film tracks him from 1992 until late 2013, as his dream of making a career as a DJ gradually reveals itself as not-to-be, and those around him, including his longtime girlfriend, Louise (Pauline Etienne), grow and move on. The narrative drift seems suited to a story in which music-making becomes a kind of self-reinforcing bubble—a feedback loop that powerfully unravels toward the film’s end. In a way, Eden makes the same point about art and perfection that Seymour Bernstein does, but with different instrumentation.