There's a film that's been building in my mind ever since I saw it, to the point where I've started to think it might just be the future of cinema. It's En La Ciudad De Sylvia by Jose Luis Guerin, a Spanish director who every five years or so makes a small, personal feature that almost nobody sees (apparently he doesn't even like distributing them; he prefers to show them to friends).

En La Ciudad De Sylvia was seen by a few more people than is usual for a Guerin film: it was in competition in Venice, and then went on to play in Toronto and Vancouver. It was released in Spain at the end of September, and has apparently attracted interest elsewhere.

If it were up to me, I'd use lottery money to pay people to go to see it. It's difficult to talk ordinary punters into parting with their own money for an almost dialogue-free film whose first three-minute shot is of a guy sat on a bed, before he eventually writes something down in a notebook.

It's an extraordinary intro. Usually in the cinema, shots of characters thinking come when we have a pretty clear idea what they're thinking about. Here we're watching pure thought, devoid of any obvious reference.

Memory lane

En La Ciudad De Sylvia is a film about memory, and those promising encounters we've all had - on trains, perhaps, or the beach, or on top of the Eiffel Tower - that might have gone somewhere but didn't, and return to mind every so often as a tantalising road not followed.

Guerin apparently had an encounter like this in Strasbourg in 1980 with a girl called Sylvie (not Sylvia, as the original Spanish title would have it), who spoke a little Spanish. They met in a bar called Les Aviateurs and talked for a while, and Guerin came away with a book of matches from the bar and a beermat with the name of a second-hand bookshop scribbled on the back.

More than two decades later, the director went back to Strasbourg to look for Sylvie. He didn't find her, which is probably a good thing, because Sylvie, poor girl, is unlikely to have been a match for the romantic vision she had become in the director's mind.

But he did find inspiration, which in my limited experience is much more reliable than women called Sylvie, or even Sylvia. In the film, Guerin recasts himself as he was back in 1980 (actually, he cheats a little: I've seen photos of the director as a young man, and although he has a certain presence he's not an androgynous pin-up like French actor Xavier Lafitte).

Sylvie searcher

We learn almost nothing about Lafitte's character - except that he is looking for a girl called Sylvie who he met in the city six years before. In one extraordinary sequence that runs for around 20 minutes, he sits outside a bar, looking at women on other tables, and occasionally sketching some of them. It sounds crassly voyeuristic, but it isn't. We are as rapt as the unnamed hero by the successive faces: our initial question - could this be Sylvie' - gradually fades in importance as we tease out the characters of the camera's subjects from their smiles and frowns, the way they talk or listen (not their words, which are just a distant murmur).

Then, through a window, our fey hero catches a glimpse of a girl who we feel, from his electric reaction, must be Sylvie. He trails her through cobbled streets in real time for what feels like an eternity. It's difficult to convey how tense this slow footchase is, for all its slightly unreal quality. It's the arthouse equivalent of the car chase from Bullitt.

In the end, the most impressive thing about En La Ciudad De Sylvia is the way Guerin seems to have created pure drama without recourse to story. We're always taught that story is the engine of drama. Not here: somehow Guerin has created an almost plotless film that has the dramatic tension of vintage Hitchcock.

It's a film I can't wait to see again. Though at the same time, I'm just a little worried. What if it doesn't live up to my memory' Maybe I shouldn't try to see it at all. Maybe I should just make a film about it, in around 20 years' time.