How often do we see a movie psychotherapist who’s actually good at their job? Genre film is peppered with on-screen couch doctors whose unorthodox methods or blatant non-professionalism keep the story rolling, whether they’re falling in love with clients or going steadily mad themselves. Played with smart, subtle verve by Virginie Efira, the title character in Justine Triet’s “Sibyl” is a notable addition to the cracked-shrink club, and the fact that she’s cribbing her clients’ confessions for the lurid novel she’s writing is only the start of it: Triet’s chic, blackly comic psychodrama piles up bad decisions like so many profiteroles in a croquembouche, admiring the teetering spectacle of its chaos as it goes. Indeed, the tail-end of this year’s Cannes competition was the ideal place to program a film that effectively plays as cinematic dessert — albeit less a choux puff than a lemon tart, with sharper notes than expected to its creamy pleasures.
It’s certainly the most purely enjoyable French fancy to play in Cannes’ top tier since François Ozon’s “Double Lover” two years ago. Indeed, Triet’s third feature (and her second with Efira, following 2016’s delightful breakout “In Bed With Victoria”) has the spirit of Ozon at his most frisky and playful, lightly tilted by the director’s sympathetic feminine perspective on women who have passed the verge of a nervous breakdown, and must carry on regardless. Boosted by a crack cast of Gallic dependables — unexpectedly joined by Sandra Hüller, a scream as a frazzled German auteur with far less control of her film than Triet wields on hers — this repeatedly surprising divertissement should rack up international arthouse sales, including major markets that “Victoria” undeservedly didn’t reach.
“Sibyl” also seals the arrival of Efira, once pegged as a likable but lightweight comedienne, as a first-class leading lady of consistently expanding range and elan — with the emotional honesty and deadpan pluck to pull off the more outrageous character turns in Triet and Arthur Harari’s limber original script. A flicking flashback structure, deftly managed by editor Laurent Sénéchal’s quick, hard cuts, requires her to outline two distinct selves in parallel. In the present day, Sibyl is a calmly grounded psychotherapist and mother of two, in a staid relationship with sensible stay-at-home dad Etienne (Paul Hamy); nine years previously, she was a ragged alcoholic, obsessively and unsustainably in love with Gabriel (Niels Schneider, Efira’s real-life partner) as his commitment wanes.
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Alternately traumatic and sensual memories from that period keep intruding on Sibyl’s otherwise mended life, like rude mental glitches. Perhaps that’s partly why she hits the brakes on her day job, dropping multiple damaged clients so she can spend more time working on her first novel — only for the blinking cursor on her blank-screened laptop to glare back at her like an admonishment. In need of distraction, she changes her mind and takes on a new, intriguing client: young, fragile actress Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who’s mired in a hellish love triangle with Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), the dreamy, preening leading man on her latest film, and Mika (Hüller), her jealous, demanding director.
Pregnant with Igor’s unwanted child, Margot doesn’t want Sibyl to analyze her so much as take charge of her collapsing life. That’s an overstep that the dubiously good doctor, who at last finds writing inspiration in the ingenue’s real-life melodrama, is all too willing to take, even jetting to Stromboli to coach her client through a fraught shoot. (Notwithstanding the Rossellini reference, the film-within-a-film looks to be a riotously overwrought Europudding.) Exarchopoulos, whom we know by now can sob onscreen with more vigor and variation than just about any of her peers, is a study in human spillage, in perfect contrast to Efira’s compressed composure.
Yet the more closely involved Sibyl becomes with the Margot soap opera — “Keep the drama fictional, if you don’t mind,” Mika sneerily chides her star — the more volatile and disruptive a presence her past becomes. Triet doesn’t shy from the essential silliness of this premise, playing much of the on-set tension as acidic farce, with Hüller’s unraveling, hard-to-please artiste earning the film’s snippiest laughs. (“Sometimes a breakdown is a luxury,” she snaps as Margot pleads for a little mental recovery time.)
But there’s a quieter, more rueful undertow to this volleying of high emotions, as monitoring (and secretly fictionalizing) Margot’s crisis makes her none-too-authoritative analyst reflect on what she herself lost in the process of becoming found. Are the better life, better career and better relationship that she made for herself necessarily the ones she wants, or just more socially suitable? Can she still, as she wonders, rewrite life more to her liking?
“Sibyl” may not get bogged down in such interior questioning, but as in “In Bed With Victoria” — a romcom that thinks as much as it adorably feels — these untidy ideas of female desire and identity lightly complicate what might otherwise simply be a thin, plotty romp. Where many filmmakers might have steered this script straight into a film noir alley, Triet keeps her film’s genre leanings in flux: variously nodding to Hitchcockian suspense, Bergman-lite character analysis and bourgeois comedy of manners, with an onscreen hat-tip to David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” tossed in for good measure.
In this sense, “Sibyl” is as reluctant to be pinned into an identity as its protagonist is, though Triet directs the whole with consistently silky style. In what could be a chilly exercise, Simon Beaufils’ cinematography deserves much credit for warming things up with its worn-velvet hues of ochre, indigo and lantern red, while a soundtrack of choice jazz and classical cuts yields the second great scene of Cannes 2019 (after Triet’s compatriot and Competition rival Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) to close in on its leading lady as the first movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” thrums around her. Like much else in “Sibyl,” it’s not the most daring choice, but it couldn’t be more elegantly applied.