A young artist (Xavier Lafitte) sits at a café in France and watches the women around him. He is looking for a former lover of six years past, Sylvia, in the places that they first met. He sees a woman who he believes is Sylvia and begins to follow her around the city in an attempt to reconnect with the lost love that he cannot forget.
The Critics Said
“The movie has a wistful charm – it works – but it’s dangerously close to the cinematic equivalent of Music to Watch Girls By.” – Tim Robey, The Telegraph
“Something to rouse the senses, this sensualist delight is an immaculate expression of the thrill of the hunt and the cruel damage our hearts of glass incur from an unexpected loss or missed opportunity.” – Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine
Original title: En la ciudad de Sylvia
Country: Spain, France
Language: French, Spanish
Director: In José Luis Guerin
Writer: In José Luis Guerin
Starring: Xavier Lafitte, Pilar López de Ayala
Runtime: 84 minutes
In modern France an artist, a young romantic, sits at a café and sketches the women around him. And he stares at them. A lot. His is not the distracted glance of the portraitist as his eyes flick from subject to sketch but is often an intense, focused regard of them. When he begins to follow one woman who he believes is his ex-lover, however, his behaviour becomes slightly concerning. Like the faceless sketches he draws he has only a vague picture of Sylvia in his head as this woman he pursues is most certainly not her. Despite the sinister undertones, however, José Luis Guerin’s film is merely an ambulatory meditation on the female identity, albeit from the perspective of a character whose male gaze is resolutely fixed.
Guerin’s focus is not quite as singular as the young man’s; the director leaves the camera lingering on almost-empty streets, capturing the routines of city life, its sights and sounds. The naturalistic feel this creates is evocative of the Rome of Vittorio De Sica’s films, as the rest of the city goes about its business unimpeded by the concerns of narrative. It is a method that at once lulls you into its tranquil pace but also frustrates in its lack of focus; the quiet streets through which the young artist flits are nowhere near as interesting as the crowded cafés, where the ingenuity of Guerin’s compositions make up for the relaxedness of the plot. The patrons of these places are mostly made up of women and as our protagonist sits and sketches them the camera moves between their conversations, framing one face upon another, controlling space and utilising reflections tightly so that these faces are built up into layers, those deep in the frame brought forward to interact with those in the foreground. The resulting coalescence of front and profile views is evocative of Pablo Picasso’s angular portraiture and is the most accomplished aspect of Guerin’s film.
Xavier Lafitte plays the melancholy artist perfectly, his heart fixed on a woman who he can barely remember. His sketchbooks are similarly filled with only the shapes of women, silhouettes of their bodies and briefly outlined faces, rather than meticulous representations. He scribbles the word ‘Elle’ on one of these drawings, before altering it to ‘Elles.’ ‘She’ becomes ‘they,’ as if it is not a specific woman he is looking for but his vague outline of her, this lost figure from his past informing his regard of womanhood in general. At one point he is confronted by the ‘Sylvia’ he has been following, who reprimands him for his behaviour. ‘You knew I was following you?’ he asks, and while his pursuit may have been driven by this grand romantic gesture, in the eyes of others its impropriety is revealed. Looking back on the face of ‘Sylvia’ as she is pursued does reveal her apprehension, which exposes the young man’s perspective as somewhat unreliable. What about the long, delicately filmed scenes of the women at whom he stares? Their faces are lit softly and their hair blows dramatically in the wind, but were we to reverse the perspective would the shade draw and the wind drop? At times what we see is what he sees but as he chases his phantom lover down the streets and alleys of the city we find ourselves wanting to step away from him. Guerin allows plenty opportunity to do so by leaving his camera fixed on the city around the young artist. It allows us to take a breath and cast our gaze elsewhere, for the chase becomes a bit too close for comfort.
More by José Luis Guerin
Memories of a Morning (2011) – In the City of Sylvia is a rare digression into fiction from director José Luis Guerin, who has built a solid documentary filmography over the last couple of decades. Memories of a Morning, one of his most recent, shines a light on an unknown violinist living in Guerin’s neighbourhood who committed suicide, leaving behind a translated version of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.