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.