An exquisite companion work to his equally masterful “In the City of Sylvia,” Jose Luis Guerin’s “Photos in the City of Sylvia” not only expands and twists the other film’s meanings and themes, but reps the finest, most mind-tickling example of still-image-as-cinema since Chris Marker’s “La Jetee.” Although pic’s predecessor screened to critical acclaim in Venice, Vancouver fest is the first to properly screen both pics together, making it clear that they’re one pic in two parts. Distribs and fests should follow Vancouver’s example; a more ideal example of high art cinema simply doesn’t exist on the current world circuit.
To place “Photos” in the correct context, “City” should be seen first, so the viewer can take in Guerin’s intriguing, often droll account of a contempo flaneur and struggling artist who lands in Strasbourg and becomes convinced that he’s spotted a woman named Sylvia, whom he met in the burg’s lovely medieval quarter six years before.
It turns out that this is only part of the story. “Photos” takes a few steps back, constructing a tale that may or may not be an autobiographical/documentary account of “City’s” conceptual building blocks. Employing a silent soundtrack, lensing in exquisite black-and-white digital video and then distilling these images into stills that frequently stand-alone but are also sometimes used in rapid succession, pic follows Guerin’s odyssey as he lands upon the idea for “City.” Immediate impression is of an ultra-contempo pic drenched in the sensibility of silent film, yet made in state-of-the-art video.
Title cards written in the first person show the first place Guerin met Sylvia, a Strasbourg bar called Les Aviateurs (which plays a prominent role in “City”). Some details emerge that exactly match those of “City’s” male protag, but pic suggests helmer’s personal p.o.v. more than his hero’s. Guerin’s major problem is that since he first met Sylvia — 22 years ago — time has blurred his memory of her face; this becomes the catalyst for a fascinating inquiry into how we all watch strangers’ faces for that magic moment of recognition, how those strangers may catch our eye, and how the camera intervenes.
Still compositions of several women (in many cities across Europe, from Lisbon to Bologna) foreshadow Guerin’s lensing scheme for “City,” as does his consideration of the literary history of romantic conquest. Guerin’s starting point is Goethe (once a young man in Strasbourg) and his “Sorrows of Young Werther,” a role in which stunningly handsome “City” star Xavier Lafitte would be ideally cast. The journey continues with Dante’s adoration and search for his beloved Beatrice, as well as Petrarch’s similar rapture for Laura in Avignon.
Crucially, the visual correlative for this romantic quest is the repeated image of a woman seen from behind as she walks on the street. The impossibility of seeing their faces, leading the viewer to imagine what they might look like amplifies the film’s poetic texture and tension.
None of the various ideas, themes or situations invoked is the least bit pedantic or insistent. Instead, “Photos in the City of Sylvia” captures that dazzling sense of discovery one experiences when first encountering European cities and their denizens, complete with Guerin’s amusingly inserted snippets of travel maps, notes and little memoirs, layered over with the pure joy of wandering for wandering’s sake. Editor Nuria Esquerra’s rapid montages, creating the optical illusion of scanning a flipbook, are beautifully spaced apart over the course of the 67-minute pic.