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May 19, 2011

In the City of Sylvia

in the city of sylvia poster.jpg

En la ciudad de Sylvia/Dans la Ville de Sylvia
Jose Luis Guerin - 2007
Axiom Film Region 2 DVD

Without stating it directly, In the City of Sylvia is a movie about movies. More precisely, I think of it as the movies we create in our imaginations based on what is seen or heard, especially that which might not be clearly seen or partially heard. There is one scene where the unnamed young man is sitting by the tram stop in Strasbourg, watching the trains go by, looking both at the reflections on the windows and through the windows. If the title had not been so closely associated with Luis Bunuel, this movie could well have been called Illusion Travels by Streetcar.

One of the reviews compares Guerin's film to Hitchcock which is not inappropriate but is misleading. What Guerin does is strip the narrative almost naked. What we are watching is a young man following a young woman through the streets of Strasbourg. We eventually find out through the only scene of dialogue that the young man thinks that the young woman is someone he met six years ago named Sylvia. By jettisoning all but the most basic kind of set up, Guerin has literally cut to the chase.

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The film is also about movies in other ways. The opening shot is disorienting. At first I thought I was looking at a shot created by a camera panning in a dark room. I realized when the shot was repeated that the camera was fixed, and the illusion of motion was created by the movement of car lights traveling past the dark hotel room. There are shots of the young man's sketch book taken from his point of view. Whether he is rustling through the pages or they are being pushed by wind is not clear, but the movement of the pages creates a rough kind of animation. Again, without emphasis, Guerin reminds the viewer about the physical essence of celluloid based movies.

There are characters who wander in and out of the film, most notably a street vendor with cigarette lighters and belts, and a corpulent panhandler. Guerin makes use of the idea of certain people being fixtures as it were within specific environments. There's also something of a comic motif with three moments involving spilled drinks. The faces on advertisement billboards provide their own kind of commentary. One wonderful shot is of a light summer dress, hanging out of a window to dry, the wind creating the movement of a solo dance.

Most amazing for me was the first scene with the young man sitting in an outdoor cafe. The way people were positioned within the frame, it would appear that someone would be kissing someone else, or whispering to them, even though the two people would not be sitting together. When two people are sitting together, they are not talking to each other, and the background acts as a commentary on the foreground - the man in this shot is sitting in thought while behind him we can a similar looking man happily chatting with his girl friend. When the camera shows the point of view of the young man, there are a series of shots of various young women, mostly partially observed, seeming to mimic the mind's eye in determining who is or is not in focus.

I find it easier to describe what In the City of Sylvia is not, rather that what it is, because there is very little in the way of narrative. The film is constructed in such a way that the viewer can bring in individual interpretations of what they are watching. The young woman whom the young man pursues remains unnamed. In the final scene, the young man is gazing at the various women passing through the train stop. Maybe all of them are Sylvia.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 19, 2011 06:36 AM