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Review: "In the City of Sylvia" (Guerín, Spain)

At the 2007 New York Film Festival, where I first saw José Luis Guerín’s inspiring In the City of Sylvia, the best films seemed to be ones that did so much with so little. Resting on slim stories and minimal dialog, films like Flight of the Red Balloon, The Man From London, and Paranoid Park (all, like Guerín’s film, seeing theatrical release to some degree in 2008) put aesthetics above script and in turn emphasize ambiance and abstractions over concrete meanings and story progress.

José Luis Guerín’s stunningly lovely In the City of Sylvia more than belongs in the company of these tremendous auteurs, all the more so because his film seems to work with the slightest of all scenarios: a man (Xavier Lafitte) arrives in a foreign city and proceeds to look for a woman named “Sylvie.” While we may learn the barest sketches of details about the woman he is looking for and why he is looking for her later in the film, in essence the movie is just this—a man looking. Admittedly, this could perhaps suggest a film either painfully fanciful in its romantic search, or intolerably focused on ogling anonymous women, but Guerín’s film of fleeting romantic impressions caught and lost or missed altogether lightly, nimbly avoids these pitfalls. Indeed, like the films mentioned above, all among the finest of the year, it is In the City of Sylvia’s simplicity that makes it impossible to summarize, jettisoning plot for an enigmatic, open-ended cinematic tone.

Intertitles dreamily separate the anonymous man’s search into “nights” even though almost all of his search takes place during days, perhaps a reference to the oneiric wanderings in search of love in the White Nights of Dostoyevsky, Visconti, and Bresson. The pace and priorities of the film are set in a nearly twenty minute section during the man’s first day in the city, a sequence that is essentially made up entirely of people watching at a café. Sometimes these people are shown from the man’s point of view (and bracketed by his reaction shots, with the camera simulating him moving slightly for a better view), but more often than not it is not the anonymous man but rather Guerín who is showing us a different, perhaps better, angle of what the man is looking at.

The absence of what the man is looking at—and for—is the crux of the film, and the heart of its enthralling mysteriousness. One wonders less what it is specifically that the man is after (as it gradually, amazingly becomes clear that even he has no specific idea), and instead, we, placed in the surrogate role of observer, search for the specialness, the magic, the cinema in this wide variety of women, almost all beautiful but also almost all in a variety of inexplicable, hanging, or dynamic moods and expressions as the man catches sight of them in the middle of conversations or introspection. This is compounded by the man’s (or Guerín’s) imprecise vision, focusing on a woman in the background while one in the foreground does something else or blocks our view, or pondering an isolated vision of someone only to later pay heed to the person’s context, who she is sitting with or talking to.

I could have watched a ninety minute film of the man’s café observation, but like an avid filmgoer the man does eventually narrow meaning and focus his attentions, finally choosing a single woman whom he proceeds to follow around the city in an almost permanent uncertainly as to whether she is the one he really is searching for. This lengthy sequence clarifies that it is indeed the search and the ungraspable nature of the man’s indistinctly defined object that is the pleasure of In the City of Sylvia. (The movie seems to be titled wrongly, in a strange slip, as the name the man utters is Sylvie; a translation error or not, it resonates with the arbitrariness of the immediate exterior appearances that the man tries to see beneath to find his lost object, none of the girls he fixates on have anything in common other than age and beauty.) In one masterful, breathtaking sequence in a film built on lengthy, atmospherically immersive and emotionally fluctuating sequences, the man confronts one of his visions on a moving tram and has to face the imprecision of his own desire set against the fluid passage of the city behind him and the girl outside the train window.

The labyrinth produced by memories, cities, desires, and a hope perhaps stronger even than what is actually hoped for forever obscures the man’s treasure, which he tries to pull from his dreams and form into words and sketches in his notebook, trying to elucidate and overlay these unclear desires on the women of this mysterious city. To allegorize the man’s search is certainly possible, but considering the anonymity of the city, the abstraction of the search, and the incredible, lucid, and devastating interactions he eventually has with the city’s women after his ardent, almost too-fixated stalking, it would be a disservice to the simple, sublime artistry of In the City of Sylvia to tie it down to a static, stable meaning. The film’s vision of life, of cinema, and of life as cinema—as searching for recognition, reclaiming memories, furrowing through a tumult of incredible sounds and visions to find that meaning so personal to the viewer—is one that lucidly, powerfully, and mournfully rejects the satisfaction of such concreteness.

Excellent write-up. I saw ‘In the City of Sylvia’ a few months ago (and Visconti’s ‘White Nights’ a bit later, so that comparison hits home) and loved it. It’s a film made up of “barest sketches”, indeed! Two things I remember wondering about immediately after the film ended were: (1) how its structure — a static set-up followed by a long chase sequence — was similar to early, silent cinema; and (2) how the boyish appearance of the main actor prevents his character, and the film, from becoming excessively creepy.
I hope that it gets released in some form here. I’ve only seen it on my computer screen, and it was still great there.
Pacze: I hadn’t thought of the silent film structure, though I do recall a rather grandstanding piece of criticism on the film talking about how Guerín was re-inventing silent cinema or something of the like. Guerín gets to embrace something silent cinema simply couldn’t, namely mobility of vision. Someone like Griffith was a master of mobility of characters, space, and time, but it wasn’t until the Steadicam was invented that we really could have mobility of vision. As to your second point, I both agree and disagree. I find his androgynous look and feel both less threatening and perhaps even stranger because of its asexuality. Somehow the fact he is desiring and chasing after a woman but radiates zero sexuality makes his longing more mysterious, and, in a way, more creepy. Eli: seconded! A good friend was trying his darnedest to acquire the film for US distribution but the rights holders were asking totally unrealistic prices. If only a film as wonderful as this could make millions!
Good point about the moving camera. If silent cinema’s static camera watched the chase, Guerín’s unchained camera now becomes part of it—which, in turn, brings us into it, as well. One more thing I meant to ask: if I remember right, there’s a scene late in the film set at a bus station (?) where the main character is sitting and where several people (mostly women) are waiting for the bus. As the main character loiters, the film starts showing their faces, including the face of a woman who seems burned or scarred somehow. Unless I’m completely making that up or mixing two scenes together, I remember being unnerved by that part of the film. It was perhaps the only time when the film made my voyeurism uncomfortable. What’s your take on it?
Marvelous review. All of the things you mentioned thoughtfully describe the experience of watching the film. I’ve been reading the reviews published this week (I saw the film a few months ago on a DVD copy), in particular those of J. Hoberman in the Village Voice and Nathan Lee in the New York Times, and they mention films like Murnau’s Sunrise and Hitchcock’s Vertigo in their discussions, which I understand to some extent. But I wonder if people are overlooking the quiet humor of the film, something very much like the loveliest moments in the films of Tati. I’m thinking especifically of those instances once the “chase” gets underway where we see the girl in a small corner of the frame, and then immediately thereafter our hero appears in the same space.
Pacze: Good question. I just saw it again last night with that in mind. You are right, and I remembered the scene from my first viewing: amid the montage of women, women in reflections and overlaps, there is one woman wearing sun-glasses whose right side of her face is disfigured. The inclusion makes sense: this final sequence is essentially (though not entirely) the first time Guerin starts to include woman who are not specifically the “Sylvie” type (around the same age, same level of beauty). Kids, older women, plainer women, and finally a scarred woman all precede the main character catching first refracted glimpses of the woman he followed through the city, before he finally actually does spy her getting on the tram. I find the film very open and a scene like that encourages many readings. The film clearly is about the dispersal and fragmentation of desire and memory, how a single thing breaks into many and the original picture is splintered off into a great number of other potential desires and memories. Which is one reason for the number and variety of women and images of women by the film’s end, as the film (or the protagonist, or both) starts to realize the potential in each person, in each image. Jaime: that’s for the kind words! I think Tati is in there too, just like Murnau and Ozu is, but sort of without the origin. In other words, I see the references, but what made, say, Ozu’s hallway shots of people entering and leaving the frame, Murnau’s tram ride in Sunrise or Tati’s use of sound and people in the frame all special in those instances are for the most part not existent in Sylvie. For example, I don’t think the movie is very humorous, and certainly not in the way it “uses” Tati references. Playful, yes, funny, not so much.
I saw this film last summer and think your review is right on the nose. It is a wonderful achievement to make a film work so well with so little plot.
Thanks thelostboy! Glad you got to see the film and that (presumably) you enjoyed it!

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