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In The City of Sylvia


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For those who didn't catch this at a festival, it is available on an R2 DVD. Basically a series of five or six very long scenes, it is a quiet film about a guy observing other people (mostly women) while on holiday in a picturesque French town. During one of these people-watching forays he notices a girl that he thinks he had spent some time with during his last stay in this city, and then follows her shyly until talking to her. There is a sense in which Sylvia is everything everyday filmgoers hate about French cinema, as it is ponderous, overly composed, lacks any significant dialogue, and spends much of its time focused on the back of random people's necks. But despite the fact that it sounds like really insipid navel-gazing, there is a thoughtful quality to the way it lets us digest cafe and bar scenes. It is a bit like watching a color photo come to life in an exposure bath. The chase scenes are exqusitely staged, and take full adavantage of this beautiful setting. I was still on the fence about the film until its second to last scene, that takes place over the course of several songs in a bar - but it managed to refer to many of my favorite scenes at the same time, like the beginning of Vivre sa vie and the end of Beau Travail. And of course, it has a memorable quality of its own.

It also features a lot of sketching in real-time, and I can't think of other films that have spent so much time focused on a sketchpad.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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  • 2 years later...

I have lost no love for this film over the past two years. I eventually posted a review here. If you have ever had the fleeting pleasure of traveling in Europe by yourself, watch this and compare notes.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 7 months later...

Well, Anne and I just had one of the most glorious movie dates of our 16 years together.

I am exhausted with happiness. What a knockout!

If this had come out this year, it would have given Certified Copy serious competition for the top spot. I was smitten within a few minutes. The movie makes me lean forward. It gives me the strange sensation of waking up, and waking up further, shot by shot, scene by scene. Watching it for the first time, I got to a point where I was suspicious of everything - every detail, every reflection, every shadow, every person standing 3/4 out of the frame. It's a search for a woman, for a mystery, for the heart of a city, for the secret of cinema...

And the sound in this film. It's a master class in diegetic sound, and in sketching the world beyond the frame through sound. Eventually, you know the geography of the story so well that you can recognize places by the sound of them before you recognize the scenery.

And the motion... the people and bicycles and cars and rolling suitcases and trains and busses come from all directions. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that immersed me in a particular place the way this one does. I swear I could smell those cafes, those alleys.

Oh, and the two shots about 2/3rds of the way through when we see him and her through the flickering windows of the passing train (train? bus?) What a fantastic way of reminding us that this movie is all about our obsession with movies and what we're all searching for when sit down in a darkened theatre.

And the wonderful humor waiting to be noticed in the advertisements, the signs, the graffiti.

The opening 20 minutes are just packed with visual cleverness. It plays with our expectations just wickedly, and shows us just how our first impression of a scene can be entirely changed if the frame shifts to the right or left slightly. (I loved the guessing game of figuring out the relationships between people at the cafe, figuring out the meanings of their quizzical expressions.)

I could go on and on and on. But I just want to let my head spin for a while.

If there was anything that bothered me - the only thing I can think of is this: It's the guy. He just seemed... I don't know, a little too prepared, like he'd spent an hour in front of the mirror before going out to sit and very, very noticeably watch people... very, very noticeably perform "keeping a low profile." If that makes any sense. He looked like he wanted to look like a quiet observant artist on the edge of the cafe crowd, which of course makes him a poser. But as the movie rolled on, I realized that no, he's not a poser, he really is that guy. He just looked too much like a guy who stepped out of an ad in Vogue. But this is a tiny quibble.

This is one I want to show discussion groups and workshops so we can talk about editing rhythms, visual storytelling, sound, subtlety....

I only have this kind of fun at the movies once a year, if I'm lucky.

Hmmmmm. Looking back at my Top 10 of 2007... that was already a great year for movies. I may have to revise things to look like this:



  1. In the City of Sylvia
  2. There Will Be Blood
  3. Shotgun Stories
  4. Munyurangabo
  5. Flight of the Red Balloon
  6. My Kid Could Paint That
  7. Ratatouille
  8. Lars and the Real Girl
  9. Times and Winds
  10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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So glad you watched it, Jeff. I've been proselytizing for Guerin for a couple years now. I still watch snippets of Sylvia pretty frequently, almost in the same way that I'll pull out a favorite album and listen to four or five songs at the end of a long day. "Outdoor Cafe," "Heart of Glass," and "Tram Station" are my favorite "songs" in the movie.

I'm especially glad to hear that Anne liked it, too, because I'm open to the criticism that this is, essentially, a film about looking at women. (I'd argue that the cinema, in general, is about looking at women, but . . . whatever.) As one friend put it, "This is a very different film if the guy is creepy-looking." My take on it is that Guerin is well aware of all this, that he deliberately cast beautiful leads to give the audience license immediately to just revel in the romantic pleasure of it all.

I'll use this as one more shameless opportunity to promote my interview with Guerin, which touches briefly on Sylvia.

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The opening 20 minutes are just packed with visual cleverness. It plays with our expectations just wickedly, and shows us just how our first impression of a scene can be entirely changed if the frame shifts to the right or left slightly. (I loved the guessing game of figuring out the relationships between people at the cafe, figuring out the meanings of their quizzical expressions.)

This was also way high on my list that year, as I caught it due to Darren's suggestion. Oddly, it was second on my list, but a few more viewings of Silent Light have tempered my love for that film. So, I think we are in agreement there. This is probably the film from that year I have revisited the most.

On top of your comments above, I really enjoy the painterly aspects of the film which come to a hilt in the bar scene toward the end. While there is a great deal of depth to the film, there are a number of very finely crafted flat spaces as well.

I had never considered your point about how much like a model he looks, but I do know some guys that pretty much look that well put together all the time. There is a touch of vanity to his character that may come out in that part of his overall appearance.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Darren, your interview says that Sylvia premiered in 2006. IMDB lists the premiere as being at the Venice Film Festival in September '07. Was there a much, much earlier debut somewhere?

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I had never considered your point about how much like a model he looks, but I do know some guys that pretty much look that well put together all the time. There is a touch of vanity to his character that may come out in that part of his overall appearance.

I had to laugh when I found Sicinski's review, in which he describes him like this: "... the eerily feminine, Heathcliff-coiffed artist-angel at the film's center (Lafitte makes Cillian Murphy look like John Wayne)."

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Well, Anne and I just had one of the most glorious movie dates of our 16 years together.

I am exhausted with happiness. What a knockout!

I checked and this is at the library, so I'll be seeing it in the next few weeks. :)

@Timzila

"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just saw this, and for now, let me just say that this is a film you want to see at least on a large flat-screen TV with the volume turned up as loud as is tolerable (preferably with surround sound speakers). This is designed to be a sensory experience, and if I had just watched it on my computer (which I almost did), it would not have been the same.

Just getting the screen and the sound right contributes to making it feel like you are there. You can almost smell the perfume and the coffee.

Edited by Persiflage
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Just saw this, and for now, let me just say that this is a film you want to see at least on a large flat-screen TV with the volume turned up as loud as is tolerable (preferably with surround sound speakers). This is designed to be a sensory experience, and if I had just watched it on my computer (which I almost did), it would not have been the same.

Just getting the screen and the sound right contributes to making it feel like you are there. You can almost smell the perfume and the coffee.

I agree. I don't have surround sound, but I'm glad I watched it on the 50" rather than my computer (22"), which is what I probably would have done before I read your post.

Like everyone else, I also loved the film. A few years ago, I would haven ever imagined deriving so much pleasure out of a film that consists almost entirely of observing people.

But what observation!

I can think of few films as formally dazzling as In the City of Sylvia. And, at the same time, the film never feels showy. Which is something I don't feel quite sure saying about, say, The Tree of Life (as much as I love it), Melancholia, or Certified Copy.

The film does skirt the line between being creepy and romantic. Apparently, based on the visual screenplay included in the special features, the El (him) character was originally supposed to be much older, and looking for someone he'd seen 20 years ago. Changing it to a young man was probably good, otherwise we would have gotten an older man staring at women (although, presumably, older women).

However, it retrospectively justifies my own search for a woman I met once on the bus and had a great conversation with. But she got off before I could get so much as a name. After that I tried to take the same bus whenever possible, and found myself looking for her everywhere I went on campus. At some point, a few weeks later, I wondered if I even knew what she looked like anymore. Had I passed by her dozens of time without ever knowing it? When I finally, unexpectedly, found her I think I nearly had a heart-attack. But I had to get to class . . .

The rest of the story is in progress . . .

Edited by Timothy Zila

@Timzila

"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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The only option I had for watching this was my laptop, but I used headphones, and the effect of the sound came through really well. Best. Sound design. Ever.

It feels weird to use spoiler tags for a movie with almost no plot, but here goes:

In the "3rd Night" interlude, who is the woman he ends up in bed with? It's most likely someone from the La Aviateur bar, I suppose, but I wondered if the scene could have been a flashback to the real Sylvia.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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This film looks fascinating. I'm gonna have to check it out, one way or another...

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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