I first stumbled upon the work of José Luis Guerín last summer at the Venice Biennale, where his installation Women We Don’t Know was shown in the Spanish pavilion. It happened to be one of the first things I saw in Venice, and I later regretted not being able to spend enough time with it. David Bordwell mentioned In the City of Sylvia (2007) on his blog when he saw Guerín’s feature at the Vancouver Film Festival and later wrote a brilliant and very detailed analysis involving the film’s use of point-of-view shots. As a result, I looked forward to catching the work when it played recently at the Wisconsin Film Festival. There were many extraordinary films at this year’s festival, including Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life and Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra, but the most rigorously formal one turned out to be In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia).
In the City of Sylvia is a story about a young artist who comes to Strasbourg, checks into a hotel, scopes out the women at outdoor cafes and then proceeds to follow one of them through the streets of the city. The film is highly abstract and completely obsessive. It’s about observing women and scrutinizing human gestures, about images and sounds rather than plot and dialogue (of which there is very little). Guerín is interested in an observational cinema that blurs the lines between narrative, documentary, and avant-garde practice. There’s a structural aspect to the film, reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman (who was herself influenced by American structural film), in which repetition becomes an important element. Certain key locations reoccur several times. As the narrative progresses, peripheral characters or their “traces” also reappear – an African street peddler who wears an umbrella hat, a Pakistani flower vendor, a female street person who sprawls on the sidewalk, and a young woman who bums cigarettes. Drinks repeatedly are dropped or spilled in cafes. Images are reflected by mirrors and glass, which will be thematically reinforced later on by the lyrics of a Debbie Harry song. Like Ackerman or Warhol, Guerín includes what would be considered extraneous in most other narrative films.
Scenes in In the City of Sylvia represent chunks of time in which aspects other than the narrative are given equal weight. For instance, the opening scene in the hotel room cuts to someone running down a street where we see a sign for the Hotel Patricia. The young protagonist walks out of the hotel and starts down the narrow street. He stops and checks a map, then changes direction and comes toward us. The shot continues as a bicyclist does the same, and two children, who speak English, head in the opposite direction, followed by a flower peddler who hobbles down the street after them, while strollers and a bicyclist cross in a perpendicular direction at the base of the street. Guerín often holds the shot beyond its point of narrative interest. After the young artist decides to shadow a woman in a burgundy dress, we watch the waitress wipe the table and a trolley move through the background. Later, after the woman and protagonist pass a homeless woman, she tosses a bottle across the street. It rolls past the bottom of the frame, while the rattling sound continues after it disappears, emphasizing Guerín’s interest in the interplay between on- and off-screen space.
The film’s opening scene cues us to Guerín’s more formal concerns. A title indicates “first night.” The light changes during a course of the shot of a hotel room. We see a still life consisting of a map, hotel key, a pencil, and a coaster for “Les Aviateurs.” We hear the sound of cars. In another shot, the still life expands to include fruit, an alarm clock, and sketchpad. Leaves sway outside the window; church bells ring. A young man, who has long straggly hair and wears a vest (Xavier Lafitte), sits in bed. He seems lost in his thoughts or concentrating on something. Sounds of traffic and chirping birds can be heard from outside. The young man remains poised with his pencil, then begins to write feverishly in the notebook. He gets up and moves offscreen. A maid asks whether she can make up the room, causing the scene to cut abruptly. After leaving the hotel, the protagonist heads to an outdoor café. He tries to start a conversation with a woman who reads a book at a nearby table, but she refuses to acknowledge him. A waitress brings coffee, but he causes her to spill it, as the scene cuts to blackness.
After a title that indicates, “second night,” we see shadows cast on the walls of his hotel room as the young man lies in bed. The scene cuts to a crowded outdoor café outside the Conservatory for Dramatic Art on a sunny day. Only after awhile do we notice our protagonist sitting in the background. We observe small details, such as a blond woman playing with her hair. The artist draws and drinks a beer. He fixates on an attractive waitress, whom he also sketches, adding the written notation that this was done “in the city of Sylvia.” An African peddler tries to sell a wallet for five Euros. The waitress gets into an argument with customers over their order. She drops the coffee, which crashes to the ground, as the artist watches with great interest. He has a sad look of longing and desire. With his intense blue eyes and pasty face, one could easily imagine him as a mime. His attention shifts to a group of women. One of them is the same woman from the day before. They make eye contact. Musicians begin to play violins. A brooding man with glasses, whom we’ve observed earlier, suddenly exclaims to the woman next to him, “No.” She shifts her gaze and then looks back at him. He continues, “I don’t think so . . . but I’ll think it over.” This comes as something of a surprise because we didn’t realize they were together as a result of an earlier framing. The artist eventually notices the reflection of a woman in a burgundy dress (Pilar López de Ayala), who gets up to leave. After much deliberation, he knocks over his beer and chases after her.
Like Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd (2003), In the City of Sylvia becomes a game of pursuit. As the young man stalks the woman through the downtown streets, a tram comes between them, causing us to view her and then him through the passing windows. At one point, he calls out, “Sylvie?” In a frontal shot of the two of them walking, her eyes momentarily dart sideways, suggesting that she’s aware of his presence. The sound of their rhythmic walking recalls scenes from films by Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant. The woman, who talks briefly on a cell phone, eventually ditches the young man. In a square, the rings of a cell phone cause him to stare at an upstairs window where a dress on a hanger flaps in the breeze. The artist backs up into a fruit stand. The African peddler tries sell him various items and a young woman wearing a backpack tries to borrow a cigarette, but he’s too absorbed in watching a woman, in only her underwear, blow dry her hair in a window above. Behind him we see the woman whom he thinks is Sylvia leave a shop.
As church bells sound, the woman heads for a trolley stop. The young man stands next to her on the platform where an attractive model puts her finger to her lips in an advertising display. Once inside the trolley, he finally speaks to the woman. Their conversation takes place on the tram with the city gliding behind them, while the sunlight shifts on their faces:
YOUNG MAN: Sylvie . . . Sylvie?
WOMAN: What is it?
YOUNG MAN: Don’t you remember?
WOMAN: We’ve met?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs,” six years ago.
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs.”
WOMAN: What’s that?
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar, behind the cathedral.
She takes off her sunglasses.
YOUNG MAN: I still have the map you drew on a napkin. You don’t remember? No?
WOMAN Yes, yes, yes.
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar.
WOMAN: Sounds familiar.
YOUNG MAN: You were with two friends from the Conservatory. The College of Dramatic Art. You don’t remember?
WOMAN: I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
YOUNG MAN: You entered the Conservatory six years ago, right?
WOMAN: You’re mistaken. I’ve been here a year.
YOUNG MAN: But you are Sylvie, aren’t you?
YOUNG MAN: But you’re Sylvie, right?
She laughs and shakes her head.
WOMAN: No. . . No
YOUNG MAN: You aren’t Sylvie?
WOMAN: No, you’re mistaken.
YOUNG MAN: What?
WOMAN: Sylvie. You’re mistaken.
YOUNG MAN: What a disaster! . . . What a disaster! I made a mistake.
The young man seems completely devastated. Have they indeed met previously? Because it’s left ambiguous, the scene has strong echoes of Last Year at Marienbad. The tenor of the conversation switches, however, as she chastises him for following her. When the woman eventually gets off at her stop, he tries to prolong their conversation, but she puts her finger to her lips, mimicking the model in the advertising poster.
At Les Aviateurs, the young man tries to pick up a different woman at the bar, but she ends up dancing with a tall guy instead. After a title indicating “third night,” we view the artist in bed with a woman. He stares at her body while she sleeps. We see a shot of the street corner where the remnants – bottles and refuse – of the homeless woman remain. As a heavy-set woman waddles toward us, another with blond hair runs from the direction of the camera, kicking the same bottle we watched the homeless woman toss into the street. The flower vendor hobbles toward us. A car comes down the street with music blaring. Another man inadvertently kicks the bottle as he passes. We return to the shot of the street with the sign for the Hotel Patricia. A woman carrying a baguette walks down the center of the street, away from the camera. In another shot in front of large graffiti, we hear sounds of earlier violin music and the young woman again asking to borrow a cigarette. In another shot, the African peddler passes through the frame. The young man returns to the Conservatory café, flirts with the waitress, imagines he sees Sylvie again, and pursues the woman to the tram platform, suggesting that his romantic obsession is an endless cycle.
I apologize for providing such detailed description, but In the City of Sylvia is precisely about details – specificity rather than generality – which is why many of the reviews I’ve read have a tendency to talk around the film. While many critics point to Hitchcock, Bresson, and Murnau as some of the film’s obvious references, I would also cite Maya Deren, whose avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon (which she made with Alexander Hammid) shows the power of the imagination to overpower reality, imbuing the everyday world with the magic of the dream. Titles divide the film into three distinct “nights,” even though much of the action takes place during the “day.” Guerín’s emphasis on night and shots of the young protagonist at the hotel provide some basis for the hallucinatory quality of much of what transpires. The film creates tension between the documentary-like recording of the streets and cafes of Strasbourg and the protagonist’s own heightened memories.
Looked at in narrative terms, one might ask a number of questions that have to do with character motivation and believability. If Sylvie represents such an obsession, why has the young artist waited six years to try to find her? Where has he been all this time? If Sylvie knows she’s being followed by a stranger, why doesn’t she seek help? Guerín seems completely uninterested in providing such answers. Like much of art cinema, the film relies on ambiguity to create the gaps in the viewer’s own imagination, which becomes a strategy for engaging the viewer. We observe the world of Strasbourg, gradually becoming obsessed with its inhabitants and the city’s rhythms in a similar manner to how Guerín’s voyeuristic protagonist apprehends it. He is attuned to every nuance of the females at whom he gazes. For him, their smallest gesture carries an erotic charge. The film employs the sexualized look of fashion and advertising, but Guerín undercuts this by including street peddlers and homeless people.
Guerín’s structural narrative is interesting for demonstrating how little it actually takes to create a story. The plot easily could be summarized in a sentence or two. Natural sounds and bits of overheard conversation position us as eavesdroppers. Character, as in the case of Sylvie, is extended to include nearly every woman we see, as well as a sense of place. The film’s sound design plays a crucial role. When the woman in the burgundy dress stops in a corner doorway and talks on her cell phone, voices of passersby fade in and out, while we only see the movement of the woman’s lips. In place of the dialogue-driven script, Guerín substitutes visual storytelling and formal concerns, so that, for the attentive viewer, the pleasure of watching In the City of Sylvia involves participating in an elaborate and complex perceptual game.