In the City of Sylvia (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Pilar López de Ayala and Xavier Lafitte as She and He

Pilar López de Ayala and Xavier Lafitte as She and He

Produced by Luis Miñarro; written and directed by José Luis Guerín; photographed by Natasha Braier; art direction by Maite Sánchez Balcells; edited by Núria Esquerra; costumes by Valérie-Elder Fontaine, Miriam Compte, Mar Fraga; with Pilar López de Ayala, Xavier Lafitte, Laurence Cordier, Tanja Czichy, Eric Dietrich, Charlotte Dupont. DVD, Color, 84 min., 2007. A Cinema Guild release.

Spanish writer-director Jose Luis Guerín is one of several contemporary filmmakers—others include Pedro Costa and Jia Zhangke—who agree with Jean-Luc Godard that fiction and documentary are like the surfaces of a Möbius strip, since traveling one path always means traveling the other too. Every photographed film documents the things that appeared before the camera, regardless of narrative, and nonfiction filmmakers arrange their materials into patterns meant to communicate events and ideas effectively.

Guerín’s two features of 2007 skillfully navigate the overlapping territory between reality and fiction, placing invented stories into real environments. In the City of Sylvia uses the French city of Strasbourg as the setting for a tale about a young man’s search for a woman he met years earlier and might not recognize even if he somehow ran across her. Its companion piece, Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, works out a similar story more experimentally, investigating links between film and still photography and the relationship of both to perception and memory. A new DVD from Cinema Guild presents In the City of Sylvia as the main attraction and offers the companion movie, which I find considerably more compelling, among the extras.

Filmed in color in various Strasbourg locations, In the City of Sylvia centers on an unnamed man who spends his time at a sidewalk café, filling his notebook with sketches of a woman’s face. Gradually we learn that her name is Sylvia, that he met her briefly six years ago, and that he desperately wants to see her again. While drawing and daydreaming at the café, he scans every female face in sight, then follows someone who might be Sylvia through the streets and onto a tram—only to learn that she’s a complete stranger, albeit a good-natured one who’s quite agreeable as she makes it clear she never wants to lay eyes on him again. Ever hopeful, he returns to his sketchbook and his search.

Some Photos in the City of Sylvia is more modest in its appearance and more complex in its meanings. It’s a shorter, silent film consisting almost entirely of black-and-white photographs, and the DVD presents it as a “visual screenplay” made as a dry run for the subsequent film. Yet its story ranges farther afield, brings a wider range of allusions into play, and allows Guerín more freedom to test novel interactions among visual, literary, and historical modes of expression. Here the protagonist, who remains unseen, has not encountered Sylvia in twenty-two long years, opening a far greater gulf—and vastly more room for slippages of memory—between him and his elusive prey. His interest in Strasbourg stems from his fascination with The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who spent time in Strasbourg as a young writer. The protagonist also visits Florence, where Dante took Beatrice as his muse in 1274, and then Avignon, where Petrarch conceived his sublime love for Laura half a century later. Sundry motifs ricochet between the two films, complicating their dialog with history and affirming Guerín’s close engagement with medieval art and literature. But it’s the silent, visually streamlined picture that most movingly evokes the connections between centuries of European culture and today’s filmic and photographic art.

All of this said, I hasten to add that the Sylvia films are not always as high-minded as they may sound. The protagonists are sentimental stalkers who never tire of staring at, brooding over, and trailing after women they don’t know, and we spectators vicariously share their voyeuristic hunt. Putting moviegoers into cahoots with voyeurs was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s specialties, of course, and Guerín references both Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), cinema’s greatest studies of visual obsession. Guerín also shares Hitchcock’s fondness for mirror images, filling countless shots with reflections of characters, settings, and other reflections.

An additional influence on the films is W.G. Sebald’s great 1990 novel Vertigo, although madness plays a more aggressive role there. And two more filmmakers must be mentioned: Godard, who surely inspired the optically fragmented words and coopted advertising imagery, and Chris Marker, whose 1962 short La Jetée tells a different kind of time-traveling story about a man possessed by a remembered face, also narrated via still photos and informed by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Guerín shares those filmmakers’ interest in politics, too—Strasbourg is the home of the European Parliament—but he’s a less progressive thinker. His protagonists are obvious products of transnational capitalism, traipsing through unfamiliar places in pursuit of rewards they understand poorly and will probably never possess. They rarely pay much heed to the homeless people they pass, and only inSome Photos… does Guerín intercut a few shots of beggars with Dante’s assertion that looked at through truly loving eyes, “all…becomes noble.” Even this moment seems more aligned with the film’s zealous romanticism than with any sense of political urgency, and Guerín does little to critique his heroes’ narcissism and nostalgia.

My preference for Some Photos… notwithstanding, In the City of Sylvia best expresses Guerín’s contagious fascination with the interplay of destiny and chance. Both movies embody tensions between scripted action and uncontrolled settings, but leitmotifs in the second film serve to concentrate its focus in this regard. When a café waitress spills some drinks, for instance, one can only guess whether this was written and rehearsed beforehand; when the protagonist then knocks over his beer, a preplanned pattern of accident cummetaphor seems to be revealing itself; but was it design or coincidence that placed an obese homeless woman on a corner he passes later, discarding an empty beer bottle that rolls haphazardly down the street, rather like the Sylvia seeker himself? Whatever the answers to a slew of questions like this, chance and happenstance share the spotlight in the end, when the pages of the meticulously framed sketchbook flap randomly in a breeze.

Much more could be said about the kinship of the Sylvia films—it’s marvelous, for instance, that the live-action movie starts with a long, motionless shot that’s almost a still photo—and about the integration of motifs within each film, as when Some Photos… mentions that Goethe climbed a Strasbourg cathedral tower to cure himself of…vertigo! I agree with critics who warn against thinking of these distinctive works as simply two versions of the same story, and they certainly shouldn’t be thought of as a fully realized film preceded by a mere preparatory sketch. Cinema Guild’s release offers a fine way to explore them, supplementing them with Guerín’s brief In the City of Lotte, also from 2007, a booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and vignettes that really are preparatory sketches. These imperfect but beautiful films deserve a wide, appreciative audience.

David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics and film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

To purchase In the City of Sylvia, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4