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A Life with Art at the Center, in “Yves & Variation”

OtherA Life with Art at the Center, in “Yves & Variation”

In the classical composer’s quest for audience attention, variation, which sees a single theme transformed into a parade of different forms, is one of the flashier and more satisfying tricks. Variation can be a counter to boredom—“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” makes us yawn, but Mozart gets it to scurry and flirt—and, through the deconstruction and re-creation of melody, it can provide a window on the sublime. Lydia Cornett’s fifteen-minute documentary film “Yves & Variation” shows its subject, the extraordinary Yves Deshommes, in various guises: a musician, a doorman, an art dealer, a philanthropist, a father. By resisting narrative and going without interviews, Cornett allows the motifs of Deshommes’s life to emerge amid its varied strands.

Cornett, who planned to become a violinist before turning to film, met Deshommes when they sat next to each other on the subway. He’s pictured there partway through the film, travelling between worlds and reading “Recollections of a Picture-Dealer,” by Ambroise Vollard, but we first see him in the lobby of a midtown office building, where he works as a concierge. In the opening shots, he’s preparing to practice the violin, as he does every day before the morning rush. Standing behind the front desk in a suit and tie, he rubs resin on his bow, tunes his strings, plays a few bars of Mozart’s G Major violin concerto—functional rituals familiar to any string player who has progressed beyond a beginner’s caterwauls—while answering the phone and manning the elevator. In the mirror behind him, crosstown buses glide by. It’s a startling scene: practice is normally solitary and sequestered, but for Deshommes it becomes a public performance. Passersby stop to listen, or to ask him what he’s working on. At one point, he tells a curious passerby that he’s practicing Bach’s D-Minor Partita, and they sing the tune together.

Deshommes, who grew up in Haiti, came to New York on a student visa in 1985. He was seventeen years old, and when his visa expired, he became undocumented. He lived with an older brother, and took classes day and night and through the summer, in order to finish high school in two years. “I became a man the moment I set foot on U.S. soil, full of responsibility,” he told me. He started playing the violin a few years later, with teachers at the Harlem School of the Arts. He was soon practicing several hours a day and working long shifts at Pizza Hut. He felt that he was too old to train as a professional, but his practice had become central to his life: “Music was the escape, music was the goal. Music was what made me achieve great things,” he said. “The violin gives me a discipline where I feel I can conquer anything.”

In 2010, an earthquake devastated Haiti, which then became the site of a series of humanitarian interventions, many of them botched and halfhearted. Deshommes, who is now a U.S. citizen, helped to establish a school in the area of Bas-Citronniers, near the earthquake’s epicenter, and then another one in Belle Anse, a remote town on the south coast. To fund the projects, he began to import paintings by Haitian artists and sell them in New York. In one scene, shot in his home, in Brooklyn, Deshommes pulls enormous canvases from a closet, Mary Poppins-style, and hands them to his eight-year-old daughter, Saraï, whom they dwarf. A few seconds later, he’s overseeing her own violin practice while he brokers a deal on the phone.

Throughout the film, Deshommes slides smoothly between English, French, Spanish, and Creole, and Cornett and her cinematographers, Kervin Marseille and Katie Sheridan, show a similar fluent versatility. Conversations between Deshommes and Saraï are framed intimately, with the camera looking up at Deshommes from the child’s point of view; shots in the midtown lobby maintain an architectural distance. During a visit to Jean Pierre Jacques Phillipe, a Haitian artist who signs his work Bouboul, the camera lingers on a painting that Deshommes wants to buy. Green and lush, it shows a flower-fringed road winding through wooded hills. “Sometimes, people tell me that my landscapes are too pristine. Too beautiful. That Haiti isn’t like that,” Bouboul says, in Creole. Deshommes laughs. “Haïti comme ça,” he says. “Haiti is like that.” Footage of Belle Anse, where Deshommes teeters across a beach of susurrating pebbles and, and then, in a tree-rimmed classroom, discusses the school’s precarious finances, confirms both the beauty and the need. The scene is the one moment when Deshommes looks uncomfortable.

The value of accomplishment, and the sense that art is as worthy a pursuit as work, runs as a theme through all of Deshommes’s activities. “Art can simultaneously shape the narrative and portrayal of a place, be sold as an aesthetic commodity, and funnel philanthropic efforts,” Cornett told an interviewer in February. Deshommes told me that, for him, “art is everything.” But people are not themes, and documentarians are not composers. Unlike in art, or music, the meaning of Yves’s life is defined by his many roles, and not the reverse—the essence derives from the experiences. “These seemingly disjointed variations and scenes compose the life of one person,” Cornett said. Like any good portraitist, she knows what she captures is subject to change.

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