What do you want from movies? Entertainment? Mind-shutting-off action? I want both of these quite a lot. But sometimes I want something else: a film that shows me something that is vague and seemingly complicated but I cannot figure out why. A film that gives me an emotion, even if it’s just for a short moment. A film that tests my patience but rewards me in the end. In the City of Sylvia is a lot of these.
The film follows a young man (Xavier Lafitte) as he sits in a cafe in a foreign country and watches and draws pictures of various women. One particular woman catches his eye and he follows her – for a good 1/3 of the entire film.
The film is mostly dialogue-less. It’s slow and often obtuse. I saw references to Bresson, de Oliveira and Hitchcock (the latter being particularly effective in its evocation of Vertigo). And for the first 40 minutes it hardly holds attention. The form is controlled, and each angle feels carefully planned, but too little information is given and too little happens to really grab the viewer.
The last ten minutes of this film, however, are pure cinematic bliss. Still basically wordless, the man’s search reaches a new height as he starts seeing the woman – whom we now understand he met years ago at this same cafe – everywhere in the city. Little things begin to “rhyme” with each other. Director Guerin connects the wind created by a passing train to the wind running through and leafing through the pages of the man’s sketchbook. The sounds in the film are selectively exaggerated, where footsteps at the same distance from the camera as another noise source will be purposefully louder, drawing us into only specific elements of a wide shot.
These final ten minutes are so carefully calculated and really assume, as I mentioned before, a patient audience. You may have already tuned out or turned off at this point. I almost did and am happy I stayed with it. Guerin makes his cityscape feel timeless and whimsical through simple, mostly static shots. His maze-like city transcends the confusion of basic geography at the end, and reaches a new, other-wordly type of confusion, where it is not the oddly intersecting streets that throw the man into disarray, but his memory of, drawing of, and actually sight of the woman he’s sought occurring simultaneously.
Another thing worth noting about Sylvia is that the protagonist is not very likable. He’s actually pretty laughable. He does nothing but drink and draw. He overtly hits on women and is frustrated when one ignores him at a bar. He doesn’t really try to change anything outside of a ridiculously long stalking sequence. He’s portrayed a bit as a wayward artiste. And in the end we don’t necessarily feel for him, but, as we’ve been placed in his perspective for so long, we do actually feel the emotion ourselves. It’s a risky technique – putting us in the place of a person we don’t really like – and one that I’ve seen used in more violent films (think Peeping Tom), but never in this way. Guerin’s plan is basically to tire us out to the point that when something happens we’ve so wanted some kind, any kind, of action, that we’ll take what he gives us. Luckily what he gives us is beautifully done.