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  • Vishaal Desai

'In the City of Sylvia'

Written & Directed by - José Luis Guerín


While José Luis Guerín's ‘In the City of Sylvia’ is not a neorealist film in the purest sense, he has infused it with aspects of neorealism that is evident through introspective characters juxtaposed with a certain voyeuristic lens through which they are presented to us.

From the outset, we are given two points of view – On one hand, we see through the eyes of the artist – Él (Xavier Lafitte) as he surveys the world around him whilst looking inward. On the other, we observe his actions from without. Guerín chooses to use both visual approaches in a very casual, almost lazy manner, allowing the audience to sink into the environment and let it wash over.

The scene in the cafe is a prime example of this style –

At the start of the film, we have the artist sitting at a cafe, surreptitiously observing everyone and everything around him as he sketches in his little notebook. We as the audience are made to participate in his observations as we realize that he seems to be paying attention only to the most beautiful women around him. The scene plays out very slowly, at times agonizingly slow, as we watch the various patrons seated around the cafe. Nothing really happens and other than what appears to be a daily routine for most of them. And yet, there is a feeling that there is something more beneath the surface. Perhaps it is the way in which the artist carries himself, the way in which he observes these women or even in his sketches. Though he sketches these womens' postures and gestures, he seems to leave the face undefined. This could suggests that he is, perhaps looking for someone or something in particular within these women beyond what he sees on the surface. Or perhaps he is looking to fill a void with what he deems to be the ‘perfect woman,’ As he switches from one woman to another, one sketch to another, ostensibly unable to find the inspiration that he craves, either externally or from within himself.

And then he finds that one woman who captivates him. We are left wondering as to why this particular woman catches his interest as opposed to the others as, upon her departure, he promptly follows her. Once again, through this sequence, Guerín puts us in the awkward voyeuristic position of watching as this man persistently follows the woman through the streets. This sequence is edited with long shots of empty alleyways. The act of viewing this is made all the more uncomfortable since his exact motive for following her is unclear.

The city of Strasbourg, France provides for an interesting backdrop, contrasting between the dirty streets and the beautiful cityscape. The divergence in the atmosphere of the location adds to the realism of the scenes. One of the more fascinating aspects of this film is the way the artist observes the people around him. Although, there is no voice over narration, there is the impression that he was studying their persona through their external appearance, their mannerisms and behaviours. Whilst doing this he was also quite clearly looking within himself, judging himself the way he judged everyone around him.

This brings about an interesting notion of the human psyche regarding the internal VS the external – i.e. the comparisons between the introspection of the self for an individual against the observations of outsiders. However, this thematic concept is severely overplayed throughout the film to the point where the story itself begins to feel redundant.

Once the artist gains the courage to approach the woman he has been following so non-surreptitiously, we learn that he incorrectly believed her to be someone he encountered six years prior. With this revelation, the awkward tension generated by the voyeuristic act of watching him follow her is brought to an end in an anticlimactic fashion. As, the artist subsequently continues to search for the woman he once met, the film begins to drag in pace and the narrative goes around in circles. And once the artist loses his mysteriousness, he becomes uninteresting as a character.

‘In the City of Sylvia,’ is ultimately a film that does not live up to the promise it serves in its first act. With an intriguing concept and a fascinating cinematic execution that eventually leads to a less than satisfying conclusion.

VishRates - 2 / 5

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