23 March 2009

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (Dir. José Luis Guerín, 2007, Spain) - In The Shadow of Rohmer

Part of me had only wanted to pursue this world cinema film because of the stunningly beautiful image of the girl on the poster and stills that circulated in film magazines, journals and newspapers. I guess we are motivated by all manner of things when we decide to watch a movie but part of the attraction of world cinema has always been its ability to offer an alternative gaze. Ever since Godard decided to make the rejection of classical narrative fashionable way back in the 60s, film makers have deliberately and at times indulgently deconstructed the language of traditional narrative cinema so that the spectator is sought to depend solely on extrapolating as much information they can from the mise en scene and on screen space. Catalan film maker, José Luis Guerín, pushes the notion of radical narrative address to its minimalist extremes in what is an incredibly cryptic and poetic example of contemporary world cinema.

American film critic and regular contributor to ‘The Village Voice, J Hoberman sums up quite well what I also think Guerin is trying to do with this wonderfully bold and enigmatic film:

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.

In the City of Sylvia: Pure Pleasure and Pure Cinema, J. Hoberman, Dec 9th 2008

I have to agree as this film is entirely about the process of looking, studying and gazing at people’s behaviour. In that sense, it is deeply psychological cinema that offers very minimal dialogue and relies greatly on a hypnotic series of subtle, understated camera movements that are barely noticeable in many of the scenes. The story is as slight as the invisible directorial style; a young man’s fixation with a long lost love called ‘Sylvia’ whom he is searching for in an unnamed city. Some critics have pointed out the various cinematic allusions to films like ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Rear Window’ but I failed to spot anyone of these. (A second viewing may help). The main leads are extraordinarily beautiful and Guerin’s aesthetically motivated casting works to ensnare our gaze completely, which perhaps underlines how the act of gazing is something quite natural in cinema but how in reality it can complicate relationships. The decision to shoot at the height of summer also lends the film a laid back atmosphere that is quickly established in the opening sequence with our grungy romantic intensely scrutinising the faces, gestures and demeanour of a group of people relaxing at a summer café.

The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw’s praise for the film which he inappropriately and obviously describes as a ‘date movie with a difference’ picks up on some other noticeable cinematic influences that Guerin draws upon for his romantic tale:

It has a Bressonian attention to mood and moment, weirdly combined with Alfred Hitchcock's brazen knack for suspense. These two names have in fact been widely invoked by admirers since the film first surfaced in 2007; to them I would tentatively add those of Richard Linklater, for his Before Sunrise and Before Sunset movies, and Eric Rohmer, for A Winter Tale.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, March 13 2009

Though I am not entirely sure about the Bressonian similarities, the influences of a film maker like Eric Rohmer have appeared more frequently in the films of recent American film makers like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach than the new generation of European directors. Interestingly, Rohmer seems to be more widely respected and recognised as a director of considerable importance in America than he does in France. Rohmer may just be the allusive missing link in the language of romantic cinema today and his unpretentious style has already influenced world cinema directors like Wong Kar Wai. It is encouraging to see a specialist film with a challenging narrative like 'In the City of Sylvia' receiving distribution in the UK but the fact that it was made in 2007 hints at the likely problems it faced in finding a willing distributor.


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