En la ciudad de Sylvia (2007, Director: José Luis Guerin): When Guerin’s film played at TIFF last September, I remember being lured by the stills of a beautiful woman being tailed by a rakish young man, but what a strange little film it turned out to be. With long, almost dialogue-free shots, Guerin seems able to both distance us and draw us into what at first seems to be a simple, even romantic story. The handsome young man (Xavier Lafitte, looking vaguely like both David Bowie and Orlando Bloom) is a tourist in an unnamed French town (it’s Strasbourg, in Alsace, on the border with Germany), where he appears to be searching for someone. Day after day, he sits at a café near the School for Dramatic Arts, sketching in his notebook and people-watching. Well, truthfully, he’s girl-watching, and Guerin’s camera lingers over many a beauty. As a man, I can say with confidence that Guerin captures the sheer joy and pleasure of just looking at a beautiful woman. But our protagonist isn’t content to just glance. He stares, and it’s obvious he’s searching each face for some memory.
All at once, he sees the one he’s been looking for, and jumps up, knocking over his beer. For the next half an hour, we follow him, in real time, as he pursues “Sylvia,” the name he’s written in his sketchbook. At first, the woman seems unaware of his presence, but at one point he comes dangerously close and calls out to her. From then on, it appears that she’s half-aware of his presence. He loses her, and we begin to wonder what’s going on. And then he finds her again, and by now it’s starting to feel just a little bit creepy. Is he just a garden-variety stalker? I often tease some of my female friends that the only difference between a romantic gesture and stalker behaviour is whether the woman is at all physically attracted by her suitor. In this case, our man’s good looks have had us on his side up to now.
Except that by the end, we’re not quite sure what he’s going to do. He seems unable to shake his fixation with her. For a film so filled with beautiful people, sunshine, and cobbled streets, I found myself more than a little disturbed by the film’s conclusion. In the first half hour, I was praising Guerin’s ability to capture “the pleasure of looking” but by the time we reach the open-ended conclusion, that phrase holds a decidedly more sinister resonance.
I loved the film’s formal construction. Guerin lets his camera run before his characters enter the frame and long after they’ve left it, grounding us in several locations, to which he returns throughout the film. We see many of the same people several times in the film, although they don’t have speaking roles. It captures a certain claustrophobia, even in a beautiful European town like Strasbourg. The sound design really captured for me the feeling of traveling alone to a new place. The man hears music, but doesn’t really overhear conversations. His interactions with everyone are perfunctory. The whole film feels carefully put together as a kind of puzzle, and although I’ve been thinking about it for some time, En la ciudad de Sylvia made me even more eager to study film theory. It’s the sort of film that doesn’t give up its secrets too easily, and which will reward repeat viewings, even if it is only to look at the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Pilar López de Ayala. Perhaps there’s a little stalker in all of us?