Director: Jose Luis Guerin
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Strasbourg, the present day. An unnamed young man (‘El’) visits the city to find the woman he met in a bar six years ago and fell in love with. He spends the first morning of his visit at a café, observing the women around him, writing and sketching in his notebook. He returns the next day and notices a young woman (‘Elle’) who might just be the woman he met. He follows her around the labyrinthe streets of the city, once calling her name to no response.
He approaches her on a tram, asking whether she is Sylvia. She claims she’s not, despite his initial protestations. She then informs him that she knew she was being followed and that she felt worried and found it unpleasant; that she tried to lose him but was unable to. She bids him farewell. He then returns that evening to the bar where he originally met Sylvia and chats to a woman whom he wakes up with the next morning. The next morning he returns to the same café and spots another woman who might be his lost love. He follows her and realises it’s not her, but notices the reflection of ‘Elle’ in the window of a tram.
The Catalan director Jose Luis Guerin has worked in both documentary and narrative film making, usually merging the two in unique fashion in previous features such as ‘El Construccio’, which observed the changes to a Barcelona working-class neighbourhood and the effects on its populace. Not a name familiar to most cinephiles, his profile will be raised by a current BFI programme featuring his entire oeuvre of work. His latest feature, ‘In The City of Sylvia’ appeared on the top ten lists of various American critics in 2008 and had been nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice in 2007. It’s probably best accompanied by the silent ‘Some Photos in the City of Sylvia’, although this didn’t comprise part of the BFI’s programme; not that this detracts from the experience at all.
Those unfamiliar with Guerin’s style might find aspects of the film off-putting. There’s only one short scene, lasting only a few minutes, of dialogue between two unnamed protagonists, about whom we know and learn practically nothing throughout the film. This isn’t conventional film-making; it’s very much an observational film, almost voyeuristic, where aspects of film making that most usually consider of secondary importance, such as sound design and the overall mise en scéne become far more prominent that simple narrative and characterisation. Therefore, it’s a rather abstract piece of work, albeit a highly seductive and absorbing one.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the extent to which it might be accused by some of objectification. For most part, Guerin’s camera represents the gaze of El, the film’s romantic hero. In his quest for the woman he loved and lost, he observes with great intensity and scrutiny the women around him. The café scenes in particular are a montage of shots of beautiful women, almost fetishising necks, hair and fingers, all assembled from El’s point of view. Observing and sketching these women in his notebook is most likely not a misogynist’s exercise, but more a method for El to tap into his memory about the mysterious Sylvia. In addition there’s intelligent use of sound design, where unsubtitled conversations overlap; the speakers unknown, reflect El’s own sense of perspective during the café scenes, as his gaze moves from one direction to another.
These café scenes in particular demonstrate how mischievous Guerin is at suggesting the dynamics of a single scene only to change them when more is revealed about what is taking place. For instance, there’s one scene where two men sit either side of a woman. They all sit impassively, with no specific indication about what the relationship between these people are. Then take what we imagine to be an unrelated scene of a single woman’s face in profile, looking to her right. When these scenes are repeated with the slightest adjustment with the position of the camera and the slightest change of behaviour of one of the protagonists, everything changes. The first woman rests her head on the shoulder of the man on her right and the man on her left is involved with the second woman; their poses exactly the same but we understand the genuine context this time.
This is a technique that Guerin uses often during these scenes; with individuals in conversation but some obscured by other individuals in the foreground or background. There’s a meticulous and perfect appreciation of geometry in these shots. Might this represent the unreliability of El’s gaze, how he misinterprets and misunderstands, which becomes more apparent in his ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the woman he believes to be Sylvia? Perhaps his memory plays tricks on him but perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe he’s trying to project his visualisation of the perfect Sylvia onto another; remake her in his model, a lá ‘Vertigo’? There’s possibly more proof of that when he loses Sylvia but hears her mobile phone ring – at which point he looks up at a nearby apartment where a woman dries her hair from behind. He believes this is Sylvia, yet the presumed Sylvia is in the shop next to where El stands.
This pursuit sequence is the perfect example of Guerin’s technique of using static shots but with protagonists moving in and out of shot. Guerin will fix his camera into position on a Strasbourg street and Elle with initially come into view and then leave, followed soon after by El. Seldom do they appear in the shot together, nor does Guerin track his protagonists during these sequences. The sole subjective camera movements during this sequence are the 360 degree circle around each character during the pursuit. If this reflects the sensations of being followed/following, lends credence to the fact that Elle knew she was being followed despite not confronting El about it before he approaches her on the tram.
‘In The City of Sylvia’ is a fascinating and teasing treatise on memory and loss, done extra justice by Guerin’s impressive mastery of cinematography, mise en scéne and sound design, which more than compensates for the slight narrative and impersonal characterisation. This isn’t a conventional film by any means and shouldn’t be treated as such. The beautiful Strasbourg locations and the two staggeringly attractive protagonists (Xavier Lafitte and Pilar Lopez de Ayala) make the film a visual feast but there’s significant substance beneath the surface.