In the City of Sylvia is pure pleasure and pure cinema. The fifth feature by Catalan filmmaker José Luis Guerín (shown once at the 2007 New York Film Festival) celebrates the love of looking, while placing a crafty minimalist spin on the Orpheus myth.
A sensitive young romantic (Xavier Lafitte), identified in Guerín’s notes as the Dreamer, searches a foreign city (Strasbourg) for his lost soulmate. “Fetish” seems too cruel a word for the nameless poet’s obsession with the Sylvia he might have met some years before in a club. And the underworld where this pre-Raphaelite hippie goes to retrieve her is a paradise—summery Strasbourg is almost ridiculously ripe with gorgeously individuated women. But, wait, could this heaven be another sort of hell?
Surrounded by snatches of overheard conversation, our hero seats himself at an outdoor café, fails to get a young woman’s attention, clumsily spills his coffee, and cut . . . Day two will be more successful. The poet is in another café, unobtrusively sketching—or perhaps auditioning?—the girls who surround him, so achingly present and yet so unapproachable. In his first tour de force, Guerín organizes 20 minutes of looks and micro-incidents. Street musicians play, vendors and beggars approach, a bird shits on the poet’s notebook. He changes his table, gets interested in a new subject, and then spots another beauty inside the café. Could it be? Watching her cross the street, the poet takes off in pursuit, toppling his beer bottle without a backward glance.
Guerín’s alfresco Rear Window becomes a glorious Vertigo riff: The long scene at the heart of the movie is a circuitous pursuit through the old city. The camera follows the poet as he follows his vision through verdant courtyards, busy walking streets, and cobblestone back alleys. Does she know she’s being stalked? Is she trying to shake him? He calls her name—as if afraid she might hear him. Will Eurydice look back? And suppose she does, what then? (Among other things, it means that this movie, much of it shot in real-time and almost all of it in the wordless tradition of silent cinema, might finally break into dialogue.)
The drama is almost entirely visual—arising not from a story situation but from the fact of making a movie. Sensuous and gently self-mocking, In the City of Sylvia is predicated on a love of cinematic process (including film theory), as well as fascination with the urban labyrinth where, amid advertising posters of goddessy models, Sylvia presumably dwells. The final movement suggests that In the City of Sylvia is actually set in the city where all women are Sylvia.