In the City of Sylvia

8 01 2010

This film takes a frail skeletal plot and nourishes it with mystery. A lonely bohemian artist-type goes to the local cafe and observes the strangers surrounding him. He finds a familiar-looking and beautiful woman. He follows her under the assumption that they met years earlier. That’s about it as far as the synopsis is concerned. There’s a bit more to know, but revealing this bit would serve as a spoiler and it matters not a whit. In the City of Sylvia is meticulously constructed, even though it does a good job of convincing us otherwise. It moves so gently and effortlessly that it approaches the viewer like a humble little travelogue. But look attentively and you will notice all sorts of echoes, parallels, recurring characters, and hidden whispers. Environments appear, disappear, and then resurface later on. They retain the meaning they had during their first appearance, so that when we find them again we can compare what they once meant to what they now suggest in the light of new developments.

Our lonely bohemian artist-type is endearing and monstrously self-absorbed. We like him. He’s pretty, curious, and adventurous. He’s what we aspire to be. And yet, he tends to simplify or mold the world around him to fit his imagined narrative. Those who don’t find a place in this narrative are discarded. Or at least, he tries to discard them. But these castaways are constantly impugning upon his imagined narrative: the homeless, the street vendor, the disfigured woman. He also tries to discard any notion that might disentangle the imagined narrative. Is this woman really who I think she is? It matters not. I have given her this role, and until proven otherwise, she must personify her tag. He lives for other people and yet he is paradoxically unaware of how they might feel. He lives for others to indulge his own whims or maybe he lives in his own solitary universe through others.

He wanders. The audience wanders alongside him, but does not quite share his obsessive focus. At first, there is a solid marriage between protagonist and audience member, as the lonely bohemian artist-type draws sketches of the local cafe contingent. It’s when he begins to follow his dream woman that the separation occurs, because even though we basically share his goal of finding the woman — going so far as to scan the background for her shape as if we were accomplices in his search — we are more aware than he is of the city’s pulse. We notice the pedestrians. We notice the fat lady sprawled on the sidewalk kicking a can. We notice the vendor. We notice the girl who asks a question and receives a lame answer. We see things that he ignores because of his tunnel vision or rather the camera sees things and we see through it. Empty streets are more important than the protagonist. He might walk into the frame and then make his exit, all the while the empty or nearly empty or mildly populated street or alleyway dominates our attention. He is only another shape in the city. He walks on the city but does not supplant it.

Sinister reverberations. Without doing Rivette, In the City of Sylvia has that Rivettian air of magic hiding in urban crevices, as in Pont du Nord. There is the plot, the story, the surface tale, and then there is some deeper mystical presence that we cannot place. A girl’s hair plays with the wind. What does it mean? Nothing. Maybe everything. The image is as if captured from a dream, like that scene in The Headless Woman where Ines Efron runs her fingers through the protagonist’s hair and everything halts to a standstill. It’s an instant that escapes time and place and exists by itself.

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