Saturday, January 24, 2009
In the City of Sylvia ****
Director: José Luis Guerín
Cast: Pilar López de Ayala, Xavier Lafitte
"In the City of Sylvia" is an aesthetical study of light, form and perspective, a short genre-bending story under construction and a psychological experiment in voyeurism that as a whole works as wonderful cinema.
Playing with our fascination with the unknown, the forbidden and lost opportunities, director Guerín crafts a poetic piece that functions in mysterious ways.
It opens with a young man (the ethereally beautiful Lafitte) sitting on his hotel bed at night; he restlessly writes and sketches in a notebook, you can guess he's the "artistic" type who would rather remain insomniac than to deny a solution for his apparent creative block.
The following morning we see him sitting in a café where the camera carefully captures some of the other patrons. Then we notice the young man seems to be looking for someone, stretching his neck and staring at some people more than others.
He scribbles "in the city of Sylvia" in his notebook as he sketches some of the girls in the café.
He finally sets his eyes on a girl (López de Ayala), a spark of recognition lights his face, as the girl leaves he hesitatingly decides to follow her and the camera does as well.
For almost an hour we will follow the man as he tries to approach the woman, chasing her all over the streets of Strasbourg.
In the way he bumps into passersby, dead ends, a recurring graffiti scribbled on the walls and a train that more often than not difficults his search.
Can this be the Sylvia from his notes? If so why is he, and why are we, following her? In a bold move Guerín includes almost no dialogue in his film and he makes it obvious that he's not worried in the least about narrative purposes.
Those who wait for something to "happen" will come out frustrated and angry, those who succumb to the possible, but not assured, consequences of the chase will find a lush, sensual experience.
The film is based entirely on our perception of things on several levels.
Natasha Braier's camera work sometimes functions as a study of proxemics, images, planes and perspective. The café sequence is reminiscent of a Renoir because the way in which we look at the people and props affect our ideas of them.
A woman kissing a man in the background seems to be whispering something to a character in a closer plane, a woman sitting between two men forces us to wonder which one did she get there with (or if they even have to be in couples!). This playfulness isn't as obvious in latter sequences but helps sets the mood for all the other ideas.
It also deals with voyeurism and how we sometimes can't help but look somewhere else. While many studies have compared cinema to this practice, this film takes it to a whole new level by making us spy on the voyeur, we're watching a movie about someone who's watching someone and while this plays out in a slightly obvious way it leads to some of the other aspects studied.
Have you ever played that game where you watch unknown people and try to imagine the history behind their faces? As a kid did you ever wonder what lied beyond the corner your parents wouldn't let you go to alone? And growing up did you ever fantasize about the passionate love affair you might've had with a stranger you saw once in the street?
While concentrating on actual voyeurism, Guerín goes a step further and relates this to our need to create. He asks why else would we create art if it wasn't for the reason of having ideas, people and emotions in a determined place where we know we can have unrestricted access to them?
The camera identifies with Lafitte's character, but during some sequences it strays behind or pops up in places he hasn't even walked by, reminding us of the limitations and possibilities we have as artists and as people (and the camera and human eye respectively).
Visually the film, like the male lead, seems to ache with the knowledge that they'll never be able to see it all, to take everything in at once.
Guerín could've concentrated merely on the intellectual and still deliver an interesting film, but the central plot makes the emotional implications impossible to avoid.
Here the director makes us observe what our stances are on love and romance. For some the young man will result a creep, his smile a chilling sign of perversion and the chase will become persecution and stalking.
To some the melancholy of fleeting love and a possibly cyclical, hopeless quest will echo the stuff Greek tragedy was made of.
For others it might come off as breathtakingly romantic and will root for the "hero" to find his Sylvia and for others this will all have been the metaphoric journey of an artist trying to rekindle his relationship with his, perhaps non existent, muse. Yet it works as all of these things.
In the end, not surprisingly, it all depends on how you've been watching.