An unnamed artist (Xavier Lafitte) is both an
observer and a participant in Catalan director
José Luis Guerin’s hypnotic In the City of
Sylvia. A film with little dialogue, it
celebrates the simple art of looking and seeing.
Revisiting the city of Strasbourg after six
years, the young man with a wisp of a beard who
might pass for a grad student is looking for
Sylvia, a woman he met in a club six years ago.
The film has no story, no beginning and no end.
It is about the quest, the seeking, the longing
for connection that some find and others do not.
Set in Strasbourg, France during the summer
months as gorgeously depicted by cinematographer
Natasha Braie, the film is separated into three
nights, though it mostly takes place during the
day. In “Night One” the young man sits on his
bed in his budget hotel room barely moving. A
notebook in his hand, he seems to be deep in
thought as if he is planning his next move with
extreme care. Leaving the room, he walks down
the street seeking out the spot where he first
met Sylvia. Like Anders in Jonathan Trier’s
Oslo, August 31, he sits in an open air café
drinking beer and watches the faces of the
people around him who are mostly young women.
Unlike Anders, however, we do not listen in on
people’s conversations but only observe lips
moving, people smiling, whispering in each
other’s ears, laughing, looking happy, bored or
angry. With the sound of street musicians
playing in the background and beggars asking for
coins or cigarettes, the scene is a microscope
of humanity in all its diversity and moods. The
man sketches faces of women conversing with
friends, reading, or just sitting by themselves
enjoying a drink. Always his eyes are peeled to
spot Sylvia, his first love. The scene conveys
less of an Anders-like feeling of alienation
than a wistful longing, an anticipation that
increasingly seems like an unobtainable ideal.
On the next night, he notices an elegant young
woman (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) whom he thinks
might be Sylvia. As she leaves the café, he
follows her through a labyrinth of cobblestone
streets, back alleys, courtyards, and busy
shopping areas, frequently passing graffiti on a
wall proclaiming "Laure - Je t'aime." As he gets
closer to the woman, the man backs away,
reluctant to spoil the dream. When the two
finally connect on a tram, she tells him with a
beatific smile on her face that she is not
Sylvia, that she did not like him stalking her,
and that she would like him not to get off the
tram when she does.
Apologetic and looking crestfallen, the man
dutifully obeys but we sense that he still
thinks that she is the woman he is looking for.
In the City of Sylvia cannot really be described
but must be experienced to appreciate. It is
like trying to describe the Mona Lisa to someone
who has never seen it. It is a film of mystery
and atmosphere, of memory and desire, foreign
and obscure, yet achingly real and familiar. It
captures a universal quality that we may have
experienced at some time in our life, a vision
of the ideal, the holy other, the promise that
will turn our mundane existence into something
sublime. It is a superb achievement.