A young romantic trails a gamine around Strasbourg in “In the City of Sylvia,” a finely tuned meditation on looking and longing in which auteur Jose Luis Guerin brings the same keen attention to romantic frustration he brought to urban change in 2001’s “Under Construction.” Pic is an airy, ultra-Gallic delight whose apparent weightlessness is anchored by real substance. Largely dialogue-free, this is the kind of rarified romance that should garner a select coterie of dedicated fest and arthouse followers, who’ll find their own cinematic voyeurism reflected in the anxious gaze of its protag.
Following its critically well-received preem in Venice’s competition, pic goes out in Spain Sept. 24.
Said brokenheart (elfin-featured, flaxen-haired Xavier Lafitte) sits in a shabby hotel room, staring lengthily into space before starting to make sketches. He leaves and heads through the streets to a sidewalk cafe, where he spends more time woman-watching and sketching. A bird defecates on his sketchpad; a waitress spills coffee.
Then, through glass, he sees Sylvia (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) and follows her, in real time, and with increasing agitation, through the streets of Strasbourg. Her phone rings; he loses her for a while, but a little later, he spies her getting onto a streetcar and finally confronts her to ask whether she remembers meeting him in a club six years ago.
After an awkward conversation — speech comes as a crude intrusion on the silence — she gives her reply. All this has taken close to an hour: The heated five-minute exchange between them is pic’s only dialogue.
Helmer, apparently on a quest to remake the visual language of docus for fiction, uses many of the same lensing techniques as in “Under Construction” — often lengthy takes, apparently random, but actually precision-engineered — except that this time, we know who’s watching.
Protag’s quest has him staring almost pathologically at the (mostly beautiful) women who might be Sylvia. Sometimes they catch his eye and turn away, but more often they are unaware. The complex dynamics of human love relationships are suggested by this elegant visual shorthand.
Dramatically stranded between the desire and the act, the omnipresent Lafitte, whose feyness makes Johnny Depp look like Tommy Lee Jones, might as well have “lovelorn romantic” tattooed on his forehead. It may be hard to identify with the kind of nerd who obsesses wildly over a 6-year-old fling, but Lafitte just about makes it work despite being short on facial nuance.
The 10-minute sequence in which he trails Sylvia through the streets makes superficially frustrating viewing, but is actually rich in significance. Main character holds back from approaching her because he knows the reality of Sylvia will destroy the fantasy.
Lopez de Ayala spends most of her time wandering rapidly around with Lafitte in close pursuit, but her qualities are evident when she finally speaks. She’s a worthy object of desire.
Lensing occasionally slips over into the emptily beautiful, as in the jaded image of leaves in the protag’s sketchpad being flipped over by the breeze, but an extended sequence, featuring multiple reflections in complex counterpoint, is genuinely striking, dovetailing neatly into pic’s thesis that there’s a world of romance in a single glimpse.
Superb sound design by Marisol Nievas is crucial to pic’s effect, given the lack of dialogue, and amounts to a crisp, thickly textured symphony of the overheard. Lensing is an homage to the romance of the backstreets of Strasbourg.