Dir. Jose Luis Guerin. Spain / France, 2007. 90 min.
In the City of Sylvia is likely to be defined by some as 'a work of genius' and by others as like 'watching paint dry'. An audience in search of a plot with a beginning middle and end should look elsewhere. But those who like to explore cinema language, and how close to abstract art cinema can be, will find much to cheer. Spanish director Jose Luis Guerin is much admired in his own country for his unconventional approach, and here he once again takes his viewers by surprise. His own publicity blurb promises 'a boy comes to a city looking for a girl, later he looks at another and another ', and that could easily suffice as the plot for his entire film. Add three or four lines of dialogue and a picturesque city and that's all there is in it. And yet, no film festival and no art house should miss the chance to show Guerin's film, preferably preparing the audience for what's in store for them, unless they want to risk a large number of walkouts. Conventional commercial distribution is unlikely.
Spread over 3 nights, Guerin's camera follows an angelic young man who checks into a small Strasbourg hotel and goes out the next morning to roam about the city. For a long while, it isn't clear at all what he is doing there. He just walks around observing, sitting in a cafe in front of the High School for Performing Arts, and then, once his coffee is spilt over the table, with the help of a harassed waitress, the first day suddenly ends.
Next morning he comes back to the same place, holding in hand the same notebook. He draws the faces of the many girls and women sitting around him. At one point, behind a window, he spies a face. Its owner walks out, she is a young girl and he follows her around and around the streets she evidently knows well.
At a certain point he loses her, and runs up and down the same path he has crossed before hoping to pick up her scent. He sits dejectedly on a bench in a square, when suddenly her veiled silhouette appears behind his back in a lamps shop. She takes a tram, and he does too. Finally he approaches her and asks if her name is Sylvia, and if she is the same girl he met six years ago when he visited the city.
She claims not to be, and descends at the next station. He stays on the tram, full of disappointment. That same evening goes to the bar where he had met Sylvia. He picks up a girl who accompanies him to a hotel for the night. But this girl isn't Sylvia either, even though she does have the same look. The man goes on searching for a dream that does not seem likely to materialize.
All through the proceedings, it is not the slight story that draws attention, but rather the way Guerin establishes atmosphere. His camera looks at people and their actions in detail, using a kind of hyper-realism which attempts to give the fullest possible portrait of each experience.
His shots always imply that he is intruding on an existing reality, which starts before he has placed the camera and will continue after it has been removed.
The sound of the street is heard on and off-screen, and a particularly complex sound design intrudes on the image and completes it. Stunningly acute camera work captures human responses with a remarkable eloquence.
Rarely has the sense of alienation in a strange city been given such a rich treatment. Every once in a while the film captures a joyful and seldom encountered feeling: that cinema has indeed acquired its own voice and is speaking its own language, no longer indebted to any of the other art form.
There are perceptible traces of such filmmakers as Tati and Hitchcock, who each insisted in his own way that what crosses the viewers' mind while watching a film is as important as what he is being shown.
Eddie Saeta S.A. (Sp)
Chateau Rouge Productions (Fr)
Wanda Vision (Sp)
(34) 91 352 83 76
Jose Luis Guerin
Pilar Lopez de Ayala