In The City Of Sylvia Review
It doesn’t happen that often, but every once in a while a film comes along that seems perfectly simple and straightforward, but at the same time is quite unlike anything else you have seen in the cinema, holding you enthralled for no reason that you can easily put your finger on. It’s particularly hard then to write about these films, since you can’t point to any strengths in plot, dialogue, performance or cinematography that would single out why the film is so exceptional, but you’ll find there’s a reason for this also, since the best that cinema has to offer are those films where all the elements work in perfect harmony, the totality creating a unique experience that combines visual signifiers, sounds, ambience, impressions and a multitude of other less definable elements into a wonderful whole. Such is the case with José Luis Guerín’s In The City Of Sylvia.
It’s not that the film has any terrific plot then – certainly not one that, from personal experience of reading reviews of the film beforehand, would have you rushing to see it in the cinema. A young man (Xavier Lafitte), unnamed and in an unnamed city (which you might recognise as Strasbourg), wakes up one morning in his hotel and, seemingly struck by something he has dreamed about, notes his impressions down in his notebook. The second day he sits at a café watching people interacting, mainly watching girls, sketching them in his notebook. Perhaps somehow related to his dream, he seems to be looking for something, a particular quality in the shape of a face, in the fall of light, in reflections, in movements and expressions, perhaps even looking for a particular girl, the girl of his dreams. He sees one girl (Pilar López de Ayala) and follows her through the streets of the city, wondering how to approach her or whether to approach her, this girl he believes is called Sylvia.
Even though there’s no great revelation later in the film, I won’t cover any more of what happens, but even what I have described above takes up the first hour of a film that on DVD only runs to 82 minutes. Evidently then, there must be more to the film that the outline of its plot suggests, and indeed the film maintains an enthralling hold over the viewer, entering into the pace and rhythm of the life of the city and its characters in relation to it. The viewer is given time to take in details of life going on about the city, as much in aural as visual terms, with the roll of trams, the hum of voices and snatches of conversation, the sound of birds and the tap of footsteps accompanying the characters on their mystifying journey around the winding, medieval streets filled with light and shadows, populated by the kind of incidental characters you would expect to encounter in such a place. The film captures the totality of the moment-to-moment span of the walk through the city of two unknown people each with an unknown purpose, with almost no dialogue taking place and not even any conventional music score to back it other than the natural symphony of city sounds and incidental snatches of music played by street musicians and car radios.
What holds the viewer, if they are held at all by this, is the unlimited potential of the situation. It’s not anything new, but the harnessing of this force is uniquely cinematic. It’s there in the first hour of Céline and Julie Go Boating (before the film squanders its wonderful set-up with desperate over-indulgence) and it’s very much a part of Eric Rohmer’s work of encounters and their potential (The Aviator’s Wife in particular comes to mind here). It doesn’t matter whether anything happens, it’s the sense that anything could happen within the unknown recesses of people and the places they meet. In addition, while José Luis Guerín gives his film its own particular qualities in relation to the city and its inhabitants, In The City Of Sylvia also has a timeless quality of a Eugene Greene film, particularly with its modern-day setting of a medieval theme, the classical look of the actors and the almost chivalric purity of their quest for an ideal. And it’s the ideal that is what In The City Of Sylvia is all about, and the sense of potential that is developed in the search for an impossible ideal rather than any sense of accomplishment. What matters here is the quest for Sylvia through the infinite maze of paths that one can take, the elusive search for the qualities that embody Sylvia, in a city where there anyone could be that “Sylvia”.
There is however no need to think too deeply about what In The City Of Sylvia is all about – the film just asks you to observe and allows you all the space you need to enter into and inhabit the world it creates with remarkable simplicity and precision, a world that is much more easily recognisable than the contrived dramas you will usually see manufactured in a film. José Luis Guerín shows that cinema is capable of more than just filmed theatre, but has the capacity to evoke poetic impressions that speak directly to the individual and work on levels beyond narrative and dialogue. This is cinema in its purest form.
In The City Of Sylvia is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc and is in PAL format. The disc is encoded for Region 2.
The film is presented at a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced and progressively encoded. It’s a fine transfer, showing no issues with digital artefacts, the image remaining stable and free from compression blocking or edge-enhancement, but there are one or two minor flecks on the print itself. The image is clear with fine tones that show good detail and a nice natural level of film grain. Colouration is strong, emphasising the strong sunlight, although the tone seems to have a slightly yellowish tint in places. Overall, a fine transfer that represents the film well, with no issues worth troubling about.
Two audio tracks are included, a stereo Dolby Digital 2.0 track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. With the soundtrack playing a vital role in the drive of the film, the surround mix is evidently the way to go and it’s subtly deployed, creating an immersive environment without drawing attention to effects.
English subtitles are provided and are optional, the font white and clearly readable.
Interview with José Luis Guerín (25:55)
The director talks about his ideas on cinema, blending documentary and fiction to better capture the nature of reality and specifically how he applied them in his approach to In The City Of Sylvia, noting the classical allusions and silent movie influences, and in the process perhaps over-explaining the film a little.
Interview with Xavier Lafitte (15:30)
The lead actor explains how he became involved on the project and what was contributed by the actors themselves during rehearsals and in improvisation, giving some thoughts on his imagined background of his character.
Interview with Natasha Braier (14:45)
The film’s cinematographer talks about how preparations were made for the film in the absence of a script and the difficulties of shooting in the city of Strasbourg and on a tram.
Filmed digitally, in black-and-white, 4:3 are two tests for Women Waiting for the Tram, one featuring Pilar López de Ayala (1:12) and the other various women seen in Strasbourg (6:17). Great for anyone interested in people watching, these tests, making fine use layered reflections and movement, have nevertheless the same hypnotic pull of the film.
The photo galleries consist of Film Stills (20) taken directly from the film and behind the scenes Production Stills (12).
The film’s trailer summarises the way the film develops inevitably without really being able to convey just what it achieves through rhythm and pace.
In The City Of Sylvia is certainly not conventional in its approach to dramatic situations, with little in the way of narrative or dialogue, but through a multitude of impressions it succeeds much more successfully and poetically in capturing the nature of reality, people and places and the infinite potential that lies between them in a way that only cinema can achieve. Axiom present the film exceptionally well, with a full set of interesting extra features.