En La Ciudad De Sylvia, by José Luis Guerín, is a film pretty much devoid of dialogue, plot and any urgency whatsoever, about a man whose raison d'être seems to be pursuing the life of a stalker. It is also one of the most compelling and captivating films I have seen in a long time, and is beautiful in almost every single way. How it looks, sounds, feels, the silences, the space, the actors, the story (what there is of it), everything is sublimely beautiful. Be warned, though: you have to put in what you expect to get out, as this film is certainly not the territory of the easily distracted or the manic household.
The film opens with the nameless protagonist (played by the striking French actor Xavier Lafitte) sitting unmoving and silent in his room. We watch him thinking, yet with nothing to go on we have no idea what might be on his mind, and we stay with him for what seems an age until he is finally moved to scribble something into his sketchbook. It couldn’t be further removed from the scriptwriting maxim of "hit the ground running", but it sucked me in and set the tone perfectly for how this gentle film calmly unfolds.
Lafitte’s character remains a mystery throughout. We discover nothing about him, other than he’s good at sketching and he’s searching for a girl. He spends much of his time trying to recreate the girl’s image in his sketchbook, but the sense here is that he remembers the feeling of her more than any specific detail. As he sits outside a busy café, he watches, and occasionally sketches, many of the surrounding women. Some are dining, some sharing coffee, others simply passing by, and each glimpse of someone new seems to set his heart racing as if she could be the one. (I've been searching for a café like this all my life.)
It is a truly remarkable and powerful scene, with each new face bringing real hope and drama. As the scene plays out, the camera settles into a relaxed voyeuristic rhythm of watching these strangers’ everyday lives, moving from one face to the next, then returning to the first. As these faces become more familiar to us, personalities slowly begin to unravel, offering little glimpses of stories, guessed relationships, happiness, maybe tragedy, all gently revealed through subtle character action, with an accompanying soundtrack of this bustling, vibrant city. It is an audio-visual masterclass, a fascinating scene, and one I would demand anyone study, no matter what side of the camera you aspire to.
Lafitte’s character does finally catch sight of a girl who, his reaction suggests, could be the elusive Sylvia (the equally stunning Spanish actress Pilar López de Ayala) and he leaps up and follows her on a journey through the cobblestone streets of this wonderful old city. She walks, he follows, and that’s it: yet this meandering stalking session through this ancient town makes fascinating viewing and gripped me more than most high-octane Hollywood chase sequences. This is real drama, yet is remarkably achieved without much happening at all, with very little plot and hardly anyone saying anything. Wonderful!
En La Ciudad De Sylvia is about the romance of memory and chasing those lost moments and chance encounters we’ve all had at some point in our lives. Maybe it was a conversation, a shared drink, or a silent coming together across a crowded room or train carriage, or even the momentary passing smile from a beautiful stranger - all brief but powerful moments wrapped up in the extraordinary excitement that comes with the blushing rush of embarrassment and elation when your heart suddenly leaps so violently you believe the surrounding world instantly knows your secret.
Love at first sight? Fate? Destiny? Although just a whisper in our lives, those moments leave an indelible mark on our memories that over time can develop into an exaggerated picture of lost opportunity, occasionally rearing up unannounced at the most unlikely of times or even deliberately recalled during melancholic moments. What if we had followed our heart that day? The mystique of these brief encounters is reinforced by our inaction, and gives fertile ground to imagine any number of wild and wonderful possibilities.
Most of us at some point in our lives have entertained and experienced the romantic notion that a specific other person exists, written in the stars, with whom it’s our destiny to meet and fall unconditionally in love with. Such fatalistic belief in predestined love reinforces all these near misses. What if she had been the one? What if that smile, that look, that gesture, belonged to the one person on this earth with whom I was fated to meet and love above all others?
The director José Luis Guerín used such an experience as the inspiration for En La Ciudad De Sylvia. As a young man on his travels he met a girl in a café in Strasbourg, spoke with her briefly, then they parted company. And that was it. But as the years passed he became so haunted with thoughts of that encounter, and what might have been, that he finally returned to the same café ten years later in the hope he might see her again.
Unfortunately for him he didn’t find her, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A decade spent re-imagining and fantasizing about what could have been would surely have engendered a romantic legend too great for the reality to live up to. Maybe. What Guerín did find on his return, though, was the inspiration to document that emotion in a remarkable and extremely brave film.
Will Self recently expressed disenchantment with the current state of film, proclaiming the art of movie making “definitely dead”! José Luis Guerín has thankfully proven that Will Self is a little premature in his evaluation. En La Ciudad De Sylvia is a beautifully crafted work of art by a master of the medium, and it reassuringly touched the heart of this hopeless romantic.
En La Ciudad De Sylvia