Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

An overlooked masterpiece about looking

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

José Luis Guerín’s 2007 film In The City Of Sylvia doesn’t have much plot beyond what’s implied in the title. An unnamed young man (French actor Xavier Lafitte) is visiting Strasbourg, a picturesque city just off the border between France and Germany. He remembers a woman named Sylvia or Sylvie, whom he met very briefly at a bar called Les Aviateurs while visiting Strasbourg six years earlier. She drew him a map on a beer coaster. Perhaps he hopes to run into her again. The movie is broken up into chapters (identified as “1st night, “2nd night,” and so on), which presumably correspond to the length of the young man’s stay in Strasbourg, during which he doesn’t appear to do anything except look, draw, and—in a series of scenes that takes up a third of the film—follow a woman that he may think is Sylvia or Sylvie. It’s something of a masterpiece, filled with beguiling intangibles and apparent contradictions. It begs for its own field of study; let’s call it Sylviology.

Before we get any further, a thumbnail sketch of Guerín: Born in Barcelona, he is a prolific and original documentary filmmaker who has made only a handful of fiction features, averaging one per decade. He is often characterized as “inquisitive,” is never seen without a flat cap tucked over his forehead, and is fascinated with silent film, meta-fictional conceits, journals, and the relationship between person, place, and memory. “Sylvia” may represent a real person from Guerín’s past (per his experimental companion piece, Some Photos In The City Of Sylvia), or she could be someone he made up, a purely rhetorical figure. She is the girl with the white parasol remembered by Bernstein in Citizen Kane, a movie that’s all about the way fleeting moments stick like splinters in memory. (See: “Rosebud.”) Or she is Madeleine, Vertigo’s woman that never was.


In place of the unreal spiral hairdo worn by Kim Novak in the Hitchcock classic—suggestive of a whirlpool and a death plunge—the woman taken for Sylvia wears her dark hair down. She is played by Pilar López De Ayala, the Spanish actress who also plays the title beauty in Manoel De Oliveria’s The Strange Case Of Angelica, a film about a young man who becomes obsessed with the image of a dead woman; perhaps she just has one of those faces. In a different movie, the face-to-face meeting between the young man and the woman who might be Sylvia would be staged climactically, at the very end, but Guerín puts it at the halfway point, as a self-effacing and self-reflexive anti-climax. It’s the only scene in the film to rely on dialogue. In fact, it puts In The City Of Sylvia in dialogue with itself, unexpectedly casting the young woman as an audience surrogate, after said audience has spent a substantial amount of time in the point-of-view of a man following her from behind.


Sylvia only does something when it’s essential, and, by this point, it’s essential for the film to address the creepiness of its premise. Yet the scene is more than that. It’s a complex interchange of emotions, hanging on López De Ayala’s expression as her character realizes that the young man’s interest in her begins and ends with the dim image of Sylvia. He doesn’t even ask her real name or who she really is; he doesn’t think to. The moment is a turning point. From here on out, the search for Sylvia will begin to transform scene-by-scene into a more primal form of curiosity, which the movie presents as redemptive. We’ll never hear the young man’s voice again.

It should be noted that Guerín makes In The City Of Sylvia’s wordlessness seem natural, rather than forced. The movie doesn’t exist in a state of silence; people are often seen talking, but their voices are buried in the sound mix, like birdsong. In The City Of Sylvia has so little in the way of explicitly stated narrative that one can’t help but marvel at how much it manages to indicate visually, translating the heightened language of silent film into naturalistic Super 16mm. It is a near-perfect example of a film moving purely on form, its narrative conveyed almost entirely through sightlines, conflating looking for with looking at. Though Sylvia is a movie that would conventionally be described as “almost plotless,” it’s percolating with story fragments, whether it’s the graffiti (“Laura, I love you”) seen spray-painted throughout the city, or the countless women seen in extended close-up.

None of the characters have names, and few appear in more than a handful of shots, but there are so many of them. They are as intriguing as anonymous subjects in portraiture. Many shots in In The City Of Sylvia are arranged like paintings, sometimes as portraits and sometimes as still-lifes, like the young man’s hotel nightstand, with its maps, kraft paper journal, Les Aviateurs coaster, and Mirabelle plum. At least one is based on a well-known painting: a shot of a woman, standing in front of a bar mirror, as she idly tucks a flower into the neckline of her blouse, recreating Édouard Manet’s A Bar At The Folies-Bergère. This shot comes during the sequence where the young man finally goes back to Les Aviateurs. It’s one of the most remarkable sequences in In The City Of Sylvia, and features my favorite character in the film. This is the long-haired woman, played by an unknown actress named Tanja Czichy, whom the young man tries to pick up while Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” plays in the background.


The music gives the impression of being diegetic (i.e., it’s actually playing in the bar), though Sylvia’s sound design is a lot trickier than that. During the Les Aviateurs sequence, the background fades from the outro of a cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” into about a minute a half of “Heart Of Glass,” then into “That Woman,” by Spanish post-rockers Migala, and then back into “Fade Into You” as the young man’s eyes fix on a group of goths in another corner of the bar. This is also the scene that most openly imitates the language of silent film, from the continuity (intentionally broken) to Czichy’s performance. Leaning forward at the bar, with her hair sometimes down in front of her face, she locks her eyes on an unseen point—presumably her own reflection in the mirror—and undergoes a series of transformations, from demure Victorian to silent-movie vamp.

In the City of Sylvia

Though In The City Of Sylvia’s chapters are all identified as “nights,” the return to Les Aviateurs is the only real scene in the film to take place at night and entirely indoors; with the exception of some interstitial shots of the interior of the young man’s hotel room, the rest of the movie takes place outdoors, and in daylight. In a movie as precisely structured as this, there are a lot of intentional onlys. Even the title is essential, since it frames the entire movie that follows in terms of a visit and a woman; everything else the viewer infers based on those two clues. But for a Sylviologist like myself, the “night” thing seems especially important, because it implies that each of these days begins in dreams and the uncertainty of the dark. (Another mystery: The title cards marking each night are in Spanish, though the movie itself is in French.)


In The City Of Sylvia was shot by Natasha Braier, the cinematographer who’d go on to shoot David Michôd’s The Roverwhose “Pretty Girl Rock” sequence recalls In The City Of Sylvia, albeit with more camera movement—and Nicolas Winding Refn’s upcoming The Neon Demon, among others. Its use of daylight is masterful; part of what makes the film so elemental is the way it uses elementary techniques, be it close-ups, reverse angles, or natural light. There is nothing fancy about it. But, as is often the case, the simplest steps lead to the most sophisticated results, building to the crescendo of the final sequence, in which glimpses of strangers at a Strasbourg tram stop—alone or in groups—suggest a world of mystery, possibility, and unacknowledged beauty. Guerín romanticizes looking. In doing so, he accomplishes something I tend to think of as one of the greatest things the medium can do: taking something completely mundane, and, by breaking it down on film, makes it seem extraordinary.

Next guest: A movie that couldn’t be more different from In The City Of Sylvia: Michael Bay’s big, dumb black comedy Pain & Gain.