May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 20, 2009
As soon as the knee-jerk Mulvey reactions settle down, and all the mild Hitchcock references evaporate, a broad network of potential allusions begin to come into focus as In the City of Sylvia unfolds. It is a quiet film about a man (a Marienbad “El”) on a lonely holiday in the bustling but quaint Strausbourg that opens as a still life: an orange, an apple, and a map in Cezanne repose within the frame.
He spends the bulk of his time either staring forlornly into space or sketching the profiles of women at various street cafes. The camera tracks this minimal activity with a corresponding stillness, spending long takes in static shots of his hotel room, alleyway intersections that he has long since passed, or the conversations of people sitting at cafe tables around him. Minutes of film pass on a pretty face, the nape of a neck, or wisps of hair in the breeze. Pencil to paper, he captures a pleasing angle of flesh in the gesture of a line, sketching along the bare planes of interest charted by the camera.
In this flattened bustle of the café, bodies near and far are brought into proximity with each other like puzzle pieces, a woman leaning towards a man at one table appears to be kissing the cheek of a man at a table in between. In several edits, disembodied limbs and halves of faces are scattered about the frame, alternately masking and disassociating the subjects of El’s shifting attention. Throughout the city people pass in reflections; their identities shift and elide even as he captures them on his sketch pad. A rhythm of similar characters scattered about his typical routes develops, their presence and absence sounding notes of potential narrative. An identical sentence of graffiti appears periodically on different walls, yet another set of storied images that traverse this deceptively simple film.
Eventually, he thinks he recognizes a woman he met in a bar the last time he vacationed in this city, and begins to follow her around. In their meeting, the voyeuristic hesitancies of the first act of the film take conversational shape, the only point in the film at which Guerin broaches any subject other than the wordless shuffle of faces and profiles.
After this, the film begins to get a bit foreboding, culminating in the lengthy shot of our Byronic wanderer at the bar where he first met this girl. Around him people dance to the overly loud soundtrack through a few songs, and the intensity of Guerin’s patience zones us in a Wavelength way onto El’s conversation with a woman sitting next to him. She is uninterested. It is a taxing, musical moment, one that first brings to mind the personality of Godard’s bar scene in Vivre sa vie but later the inexplicable physicality of Denis Lavant at the end of Beau travail. It is framed by a shot of the bartender directly ripped from Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.” Around it erupt all the possible Death in Venice and Ulysses allusions, and the host of literary navel-gazer references that energize the spare emplotment of the film.
Through this narrative aporia at the bar (the inevitable consequence of Guerin’s fascination with windows, mirrors, and limited POVs?), an ellipse in the film emerges – one that causes us in a creepy Hitchcock way to revisit the possibility of alternate narratives scattered throughout the open spaces of the previous acts. (My first thought was: He is a serial killer. He probably killed Sylvia and has repressed the memory. My second thought was: I got all that backstory from these few static takes. And then: What other stories backtrack through these bare patterns?) I guess what we really have In the City of Sylvia is a set of stackable images that can be rearranged at will with little affect on their present rhythm. It is silent cinema with a hyper-realized Bazinian sense of wonder. Or a Ricoeur rubik’s cube that can be emplotted across a variety of planes.