In the City of Sylvia
Director: José Luis Guerín. Cast: Xavier Lafitte, Pilar López de Ayala, Gladys Deussner, Tanja Czichy, Laurence Cordier, Charlotte Dupont, Michaël Balerdi, Eric Dietrich. Screenplay: José Luis Guerín.

Photo © 2007 Eddie Saeta S.A.
The feminist film critic Teresa de Lauretis once invoked a fragment from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as an allegory for women's role and function in Hollywood film. In the Calvino, a group of men chase a beautiful woman in their dreams, who persistently remains just out of reach. In these men's waking hours, they build a city exactly on the model of the one where they pursue her in their fantasies, but adding walls and roadblocks at all those points where the dream-vision eluded them. She continues to elude them, but they keep building, and the dream of catching her remains very much alive. For de Lauretis, the city is a metaphor for Hollywood cinema, whose structures are literalized fantasies, and where women are simultaneously the perpetual muse, the absent center, and the never-attained goal: movies are about chasing (beautiful) women, but we never actually meet or "catch" those women, and the neurotic, possessive, desperate quests of men are really the whole story, as well as the engines behind all the labor.

De Lauretis elaborated this metaphor back in 1984, but I still use it all the time in my classes as a way to frame how many contemporary movies still amount, whatever their other virtues, to narcissistic missions by melancholic men—including those behind the camera—to embrace or protect or "win" (that is, trap) the woman of their dreams, who is often little more than the sum of their fantasies and projections. Most recently, I have assigned the piece in relation to Steven Soderbergh's Solaris remake and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, both of which I like quite a lot. Rarely, though, have I seen such a direct or more frankly limited embodiment of the tropes de Lauretis critiques than José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, a Spanish movie filmed in Strasbourg where an unnamed café patron (Xaxier Lafitte) gazes for several sunlit hours on his fellow sippers and idlers, not quite spying, not quite eavesdropping, occasionally sketching the face or profile of a female customer. After a good half-hour, in narrative time, of this low-energy ritual, the man espies a pretty brunette through the café window and, as she leaves the premises, he follows her through the streets and alleys of the city, curiously running into several of the same passersby who drifted in or around the café: a peddler, a surly beggar, a woman with a baguette, a man limping along on an artificial leg. The woman (Pilar López de Ayala) seems vaguely aware of being shadowed, and it is unclear whether he means to be detected, or whether he imagines he knows this woman. The film's near-avoidance of point-of-view shots saps what might otherwise have been a predatory charge to such an inchoate but insistent pursuit. When he does finally approach her, on a reassuringly crowded trolley, his motives sound innocuous: he thinks she is a girl named Sylvia whom he met at the same café the last time he was in the city, six years ago. She denies it, whether honestly or not, and she chides him gently but firmly for not posing his question more directly, and for giving her such a scare.

There is a wisp more story, or at least circumstance, left to Sylvia's last 20 minutes, but as is apparent from the very long, nearly wordless opening, the movie's ambitions are not at all narrative. Guerín has made a sun-touched paean to European street life and to the (male) artist as poet-idealist. Toward these ends, Sylvia pays particular attention to sounds and enacts a half-subtle, half-overt propensity toward derealizing the city through editing. All the streets seem to lead the moony young man and his beautiful quarry to the same plazas and intersections, and for a ville full of pathways, they all seem involuted: it's impossible to imagine how one exits this place, even once we're on that train. Environment, then, reproduces the same insularity and introversion that characterize the protagonist, so there is no real gap in In the City of Sylvia between his inward desires and "outward" reality; indeed, we probably see very little of the latter. To the extent that these are Guerín's goals and guiding structures, he succeeds beyond a shadow of a doubt, and with some piquant if familiar flavor along the way.

Like Solaris, then, Sylvia conveys a completely solipsistic worldview, no less so for the fact that individual shots are so rarely flagged as subjective viewpoints. The exaggerated vivacity of sound, the buttery dream of the lighting, the striking gallery of passersby (particularly women) all externalize the imagination of the inveterate daydreamer. Of course, if this is Solaris, it's Solaris without the trenchant sideline into the nature of the real, or the fascinatingly blinkered peephole into the future, or the astutely compartmentalized perspective of the self-absorbed mourner, or the political charge of a racially diverse shuttle crew cut off from any earthbound supports, or the emotional thrum of the woman-projection who returns unbidden, or only half-bidden, rather than Guerín's much more pedestrian conceit of the space-cadet who chases down the objects of his ersatz romantic gaze. Sylvia is also The Science of Sleep—not least because Lafitte looks like Gael García Bernal's more fragile brother, and Ayala like a better-fed Charlotte Gainsbourg—but without the intriguingly woolly, homespun aesthetic, and without Gondry's more hard-driving if late-arriving scrutiny of the dreamer's stuntedness and acidity. Sylvia is like any number of men-chasing-dreamwomen movies, but without the accretions of real aesthetic risk, dramatic embellishment, thematic complexity, or political underwriting that usually give character and distinction, for better or for worse, to this recurrent foundation.

What Sylvia brings to its recipe is simply its enthusiasm for form, which is deliberate and accomplished without being particularly judicious, or remotely subtle. The aesthetic is minimalism played for maximum effect. The stripping down of dialogue doesn't clear the way for ambient sounds so much as inspire the filmmakers to jack these sounds up to surreal levels; shoes on pavement sound like mallets on hollow wooden blocks, and anyone is liable to drop a glass or even roll a bottle down a cobbled road or sloping sidewalk, just to give the foley artists more to do. The lighting finds attractive contours and shifting complexions in everyone's faces, from the leads to the extras, but aside from the protagonist's own touristic stare, bereft of insight or dramatic import, the film struggles to find a way of looking meaningfully at these faces, or to make more of itself than a sketchbook exercise in deceptively casual portraiture. Cinematographer Natasha Braier doodles a neat trick in the opening scenes, framing different denizens of the café in deep-space competition to suggest face-to-face conversations among patrons at different tables, as though the whole world murmurs mysteriously to itself while the enraptured protagonist, or the disembodied camera, looks on. This trick gets too many work-outs, though, and the whole sequence is permitted to run so long that I started wondering why there is such a shortage of good bras in the city of Sylvia, and why no one save our delicate male lead has access to a good, volumizing conditioner. The movie, too, could use some enrichment and conditioning. Sensualists, europhiles, and people-watchers will be gratified, and the protagonist himself would enjoy the movie Guerén has made around him, most likely because it shares his dilettantish limitations and his superficially innocuous but immature and idly exploitative desires. C+

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