(Dans la ville de Sylvia) 

Dir. José Luis Guerin. Spain, France. 2007

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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.


Howard Schumann

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