En la Ciudad de Sylvia (José Luis Guerin, 2007)
Properly minimalist cinema. There are two characters we know nothing about, there’s an extremely loose story but it’s a bit of a maguffin. Plot, character, dialogue are all emptied out of this film and the viewer is forced to study the little details, because there’s nothing else there; I thought of Chantal Akerman’s films. Leaves rustling in the wind, sunlight on a medieval alley, the dreamy look on the face of a girl drinking coffee.
Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it. I’m sure that most people would hate it, but I enjoyed it and found that it stayed with me afterwards. There’s something unsettling about the unashamed scopophilia; its intrusiveness, and also what you see in the faces that are so closely scrutinised. People have mentioned Hitchcock and it’s certainly that Rear Window thing of making you aware that watching cinema is as voyeuristic a pleasure as any. The male lead stares at girls, follows them around, and he’s our proxy within the film.
Pace is slow, place feels important. A lot of takes in the film will be static shots of street scenes. For example, when the boy gets out of his pit in the morning, we have a shot of the narrow street his hotel is on. Cyclists pass by, ringing their bells. Schoolboys, a limping man selling roses, a man with a wheelie suitcase that squeaks and screeches over the cobblestones. From the open windows come singing canaries, snatches of TV and opera.
The boy eventually emerges in a linen suit and, consulting his map, bounds down the street and off-camera. The camera hangs around to record more passers-by and snatches of conversation in French, German, Spanish. Very like the surveillance videos in Haneke’s Caché. Later on, a specific shot that was significant might be revisited at a different time of day, and will again be peopled by different ‘protagonists’ and a different soundtrack- or altogether empty. It gives a sense of quiet melancholy, but also of the rhythm of the city’s life.
The setting is Strasbourg, looking pretty in the summer sun. A shaggy-haired pretty boy (Xavier Lafitte) is staying at a cheap hotel for a few nights. The film gets broken into three days; what “action” there is occurs on the middle day, with rumination beforehand and reflection afterwards. The days are broken by title screens for the ‘1st night’, ‘2nd night’, which is odd as the nights consist only of a few seconds’ footage of fleeting car headlights illuminating a section of the hotel bedroom wall.
On the first morning, the boy is sitting on his bed in a billowing white shirt and blue waistcoat. He has a book in his lap but he’s staring into space, deep in thought. He stays there, as does the camera, for two whole minutes; then he starts to scribble and the viewpoint changes to a profile. We’re watching the watchman.
The camera follows him along the riverside. On the café terrace of a bustling arts centre, he sits at a table and looks at people. One girl is in a deep revery. Two or three times he tries to speak to her, but she appears not to notice. A waitress sets down a large coffee before the boy, which he immediately spills. Cut, and that’s all we get to see of his first full day in town. So far, so tentative.
Next day he’s back on the terrace, doing rough pencil drawings of the people around him and supping on a pint. It’s much busier today, he has so much wistful-looking totty that neither he nor the camera can decide who to focus on. He captions one drawing “elle”, then hastily alters it to “elles”. An African hawker with a stupid umbrella coming out of his baseball cap wanders through the crowd, trying to sell keyrings and torches. This terrace scene is a quietly extraordinary one which takes up a large portion of the film.
There’s lots of play and trickery. If we see a sulking couple at the foreground of the picture and a snogging couple at the rear, the men will overlap so the girl at the back appears to be kissing the sulking man in the foreground. Two men sit either side of a girl. The camera cuts out the man on the right, so we assume the other two are together as they sit in stony silence. When we next see the three, the woman will rest her head on the shoulder of the man on the right. After he’s been sitting in silence for some twenty minutes, the man on the left is shown to be with a rather hangdog girl who was off-camera. We realise that he is shaking with nerves. He mutters, “No… I don’t think so… I’ll think it over” (one of the very few lines of dialogue we pick up in this scene). The girl has an unhappy half-smile but one can’t quite tell if it’s stunned/sardonic/other.
The boy is now sketching a seething montage of heads, faces, body parts. A pigeon shits on the page. A blonde girl with her back to us does her hair up in a Kim Novak bun, which is the cue for our female lead (Lopez de Ayala) to enter. The boy changes seat (to escape the art criticism?) and sees a beautiful girl with dark hair, pale skin, eyes like jewels and pouting pink lips. She leaves and he’s uncertain what to do. Pint or girl? He gets up to follow her and spills his pint.
The girl walks through the town centre, dressed in red, the boy following. Crowds and high street stores. Sounds, like busking accordionists, drift in and out. The camera tracks the girl sometimes from the front, but mostly from behind. The boy doesn’t seem to want anything other than to watch. Is he trying to summon the nerves to talk to her, or is he for now enjoying the power of gazing without having his gaze disclosed?
Twice he calls (“Sylvia?”) but she does not respond. He’s immediately behind her now, the camera shows the girl head-on with a determined expression. Her phone rings and the boy drops back. By this point we’re in the old town, away from the shops and crowds. Static shots of passageways with crumbling plaster. The girl knows this network of streets and alleys, and manages to lose him. The boy is flustered- running, lost, retracing his steps.
He ends up in a small square when providence intervenes and he hears her mobile ringtone from an upper storey window. He steps further and further back, bumping into people, trying to look into the windows. What started out whimsical is now getting increasingly distasteful. As he’s staring at a brunette in a bra who’s drying her hair, trying to work out if it’s “Sylvia”, we see the girl in the reflection of the shop window behind him. (Incidentally, in the extras the director claims that he avoided using red anywhere else to make the girl more striking, and that this was a reference to Dante & Beatrice. Surely that’s more Don’t Look Now than Dante?)
The chase begins once more. We cut from a long-distance shot to one of the girl’s face. Amidst pealing bells she frowns and stomps her way to a tram stop. The boy looks like he wants to speak up but she looks formidable as she puts on sunglasses and folds her arms. She’s seen with a cathedral in the background as the tram arrives.
The lighting is lovely on the bus tram. Finally, in an enclosed space, when the boy calls she has to respond. He seems disappointed that she doesn’t remember him; they met six years ago in a Strasbourg bar (but what could he expect after six years?). I’ve still got the map you drew for me on a napkin, he tells her. That’s impossible, she says, I’ve only lived in Strasbourg for one year. Cynic that I am, when I saw this film in the cinema I assumed that it was a transparent chat-up line. But on a second viewing, those initial hotel room shots do show the napkin in question.
Is she the girl? If so, she had a place in his life and he never made her think twice. Either way she’s a little teary, a relieved smile and lots of giggles. She’s not in mortal danger from the Strasbourg Ripper after all. He gets a deserved telling off for following her so doggedly and not introducing himself. To be stalked like that is “tres, tres desagréable”.
The Jimmy Stewart line (gee, you do look a lot like her) doesn’t soften the girl and the boy showers her with embarrassed apologies as she gets off the tram. She puts a finger to her lips, says “I hope you find her”, blows a kiss and disappears. The scene of her exit is returned to later. A baroque choir sing as the boy slumps in a seat to take in his disappointment.
Evening comes and we find ourselves at the bar in question (Les Aviateurs). It’s an unprepossessing goth club with abundant dyed hair, white foundation, ‘I want to be a tree’ dancing. The floor fills for ‘Heart of Glass’. At the bar, the boy whispers sweet nothings into the ear of a drugged out-looking girl. She smirks but does not respond. Eventually she wanders off to dance. He transfers his roving eye to a goth girl with black lipstick as the music fades out.
That night, there are two naked bodies on his hotel bed. But on the third day, he dutifully returns to that café. He sees the girl from behind and follows her to a tram; where she turns around and proves only to be a lookalike. Had he decided the girl he stalked might do just as well as his dream girl from six years hence? Probably. He sits at the tram stop; the people around him change with every shot. Lots and lots of statuesque girls are posed in front of the cathedral again, their hair twirling wildly in the wind. We get a split-second glimpse of the girl on the other side of a moving tram; when it passes she has gone, if she was ever really there.
En la Ciudad de Sylvia is an elusive mood piece, a tranquil film with worrying undertones. More questions than answers. It’s refreshing to see a piece of cinema that isn’t clambering over itself to catch your attention, doesn’t pander or patronise. To enjoy it requires the use of muscles that aren’t called into action by the majority of films, I think. It was well played and crafted, but it’s the film’s uniqueness in that makes it of particular value.