In The City Of Sylvia

Movie Review by Susan Hodgetts

Starring: Pilar López de Ayala, Xavier Lafitte, Michaël Balerdi, Laurence Cordier
Director: Jose Luis Guerìn

The aptly named Xavier LaFitte plays an anonymous romantic dreamer in this lyrical and meandering wisp of a French/Spanish co-production.

LaFitte’s idler, a classic hero direct from 19th century European romantic novels if ever there was one, turns up in Strasbourg searching for the mysterious ‘Sylvie’, a woman he appears to have met fleetingly in the bar Les Aviateurs six years ago. Armed only with a map she drew on a serviette, and the nugget of knowledge that at the time she was studying at the city’s Drama Academy, LaFitte begins his search. Tucked in at a table at the cafe of the aforementioned Academy, and with the aid of a steady stream of beers, he voyeuristically sketches and watches the seemingly unaware female clientele. After spying the most likely ‘Sylvie’ candidate, he’s suddenly up and away, in hot pursuit of her image across the city.

Director Guerìn skilfully manages to create substantial characters with what seems like minimalist effort or substance. In addition to the mostly visual creation of the main characters (the city itself included), one of many intriguing things that he does so well in this film is use minor characters who never speak but are reintroduced in different places, such as various street sellers, as they also pass through the days on their own journeys. Even the same slogan (“Laure Je t’aime”) appears in various locations around our cinematic tour of the city. These devices not only create a pleasing sense of intimacy and familiarity between the viewer and a world that is now starting to feel like ours, it has the effect of permitting the characters’ external worlds to reveal that of their internal worlds. It actually feels like a genuine and palpable sense of loss when Lopez’ “Sylvie” slides away from LaFitte after a climactical conversation, at last, on a tram.

The urge to compare it to a French New Wave film full of topical angst is difficult to resist. The angsts have remained but moved with the times (for example, a decade obsessed with the need to find ‘The One’, in contrast to ‘The Many’ in the newly liberal late 50s and 60s) but the sense of drifting seems as relevant as ever. The film also bears more than passing similarities with Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNSET and BEFORE SUNRIse, but with a lot less dialogue, using LaFitte’s visual pursuit of “Sylvie” across Strasbourg to create the story for us instead.

The film’s vibrancy is made all the more fresh by the natural celebration and portrayal of the beauty of women (minimal make up, dressing down in simple vests, skirts, flip flops). This gives the film a realism and radiance rarely seen in standard cinematic fare these days.

The only drawback is the lack of any sense of an ending, but this never appears to bother European filmmakers as much as it might a UK/US audience.

Minimal on dialogue but rich in visual poetry, this is a relaxing film for stressful contemporary times. It’s a breath of fresh air, complete with exquisite captures of the subtle shades of daylight. Take an hour and twenty minutes to unwind.

5 out of 6 stars