REVIEW: DVD Release: In The City Of Sylvia

Film: In The City Of Sylvia
Release date: 22nd June 2009
Certificate: PG
Running time: 84 mins
Director: José Luis Guerín
Starring: Xavier Lafitte, Pilar López de Ayala
Genre: Drama
Studio: Axiom
Format: DVD
Country: Spain/France

In The City Of Sylvia brought director Jose Luis Guerin, formerly more prominent for his documentary making, international acclaim, with the film receiving a nomination at the Golden Lion prize given at the Venice Film Festival in 2007, and making appearances on several end of the year top ten lists when it was generally released in 2008.

A young artist, El (Xavier Lafitte), walks through the town and visit’s the cafes of Strasbourg in the hope of meeting a woman he met in a bar on a previous visit, six years ago. The search is made all the more difficult as he has only a sketch to identify her by.

The film is split into three segments (Night 1, Night 2 and Night 3) in which we follow El on his seemingly impossible mission, as he looks in the hope of encountering the object of his desire while also observing and sketching those around him.

After a frustrating first day, he soon zones in on a beautiful young woman (Pilar López de Ayala) who may or may not be the mysterious woman he is looking for, and he then proceeds to follow her round the labyrinthine streets…

Be warned, this is very much film at its most arty, which may turn some viewers off immediately. Also throughout its admittedly short running time, the film is almost dialogue free, as we, the viewer, for the most part, see the city as El sees it. As the audience, we, like our central character, spend most of the time people watching and observing people, in particular the women, as they go by, and listening in on barely audible conversations as, our lead, sketches in his notebook the faces, hairs, hands etc., of passers-by.

Like the central character, the film is no great rush to go anywhere, and the pacing is practically glacial. This can prove frustrating, at first, but it is relatively easy to adjust to the slow rhythms of the movie while scrutinizing and observing the people who come and go in the same way as the central character.

Due to the lack of dialogue, this is a very visual film. The cinematography is beautifully and seductively shot throughout, whilst the film is full of interesting visual trickery, such as people close-up being seemingly kissed by people further away, and couples who appear together actually being on separate tables with separate partners. The downside being that this can sometimes make it feel as much as a travelogue as it is a feature film.

The languorous pace and the use of long static takes in the street sequences, in which we see the streets before and after the characters have passed through, are reminiscent of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni – similarly, there are no neat solutions to be found here. Although this is not the only cinematic touchstone, as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson also stand out as key influences on Guerin’s style.

They’re influence can be seen in the mystery element that picks up when El starts pursuing the young women who he is convinced is Sylvia. It is also clearly indebted to Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, as like that masterpiece, this can be seen as a study in voyeurism and, in particular, the ‘male gaze’ in the way women are seen by men.

This is where the movie has treaded a very fine line, as we are clearly meant to recognise the lead as a dreamer and a romantic hero, but he could just as easily come across as sinister and disturbed in his almost compulsive pursuit of this woman. Luckily, between Lafitte’s classical good looks and his constant sketching, the character is kept more on the side of the former than the latter.

The lead actors, Xavier Lafitte and Pilar López de Ayala, also give standout performances, and are the key factor in making the film watchable throughout, because despite practically nothing in the way of character development, you end up genuinely caring what happens to these characters. The pair also has great chemistry together, and they exude sensuality.

The director’s background also comes into play as the film is shot in a documentary style. This becomes somewhat incongruous in parts, though, as some scenes feel somewhat contrived and carefully choreographed.

This is an incredibly easy film to hate because of the lack of any incident and the slightness of the film’s plot. It is certainly a difficult piece of cinema that will only ever attract a niche audience. There is also an air of self-importance, and it often teeters on the edge of art house cinema’s worst excesses, but for all its pretensions, this is a lovingly crafted and, at times, mesmeric film. SCOTT

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