Essential Images: Finding Beauty “In the City of Sylvia”

A Thousand Things to See: "In the City of Sylvia"

A Thousand Things to See: “In the City of Sylvia”

The images in José Luis Guerín’s In The City of Sylvia transfix us in the middle of a panoramic love story of incredible beauty – but the object of this romance may not be what you assume. The film’s hero (Xavier Lafitte), simply named Él (He), silently searches for his lost love Sylvia, whom he thinks is a striking young woman (Pilar López de Ayala) that he spots in a cafe. It’s the kind of mundane plot that literally gets recycled every 4-8 months in Hollywood. All the more amazing, then, that Guerín reduces this narrative to a threadbare minimum, and through sheer repetition of visual patterns, builds a film that’s on par with the great works of modernist art. From the images below, it’s clear that what Guerín is really in love with is the bustling city of Strasbourg, France, and all the people in it.


The early moments of the film find Él sitting at an outdoor cafe, sketching the memory of his beloved “elle” (She). But he isn’t so consumed by his romantic idée fixe to not notice the arresting qualities of the figures sitting around him. His gaze, reflected in his sketches, often mirrors the film’s camerawork (by Natasha Braier).

Perspective is the dominant theme of this sequence, explored purely through visual means, playing with point of view, depth of vision, and human interaction over a multitude of cuts. Guerín isn’t above making some visual jokes based on body language and framing, as with this initially misleading image of a couple, that gets clarified over subsequent shots:


Other times, the camera’s focus veers wildly from Él’s, no more so than when he (and eventually, we) first catch sight of Elle…

that is, the girl on the left in the above image:

By this point it’s clear that these visuals are saturated with Guerín’s intentionality; there’s little room left for chance, even though the film seems to breathe in the open air. In a later shot, Elle’s iconographic image and Él’s faithful pursuit of her are given religious overtones in this shot, not only in the presence of the cathedral, but the halo-like frame of its window:

Él pursues Elle through the streets of Strasbourg, the camera once again dissociates his presumed point of focus from ours, though the effect is achieved over time. At first Elle appears to be the only object of interest in the frame…

But as the chase continues, the fixation on Elle’s unchanging figure gives way to the ever-shifting qualities of the neighborhoods surrounding her:

Another device to disassociate us from Él’s obsessive viewpoint is the reverse shot. Seeing Elle unknowingly followed by Él underscores the implicit creepiness of his pursuit, even while adding an element of suspense.


But this extended chase sequence (which may hold the record for longest movie chase, at least on foot) has a third character: the city itself. At times it even seems to speak more dialogue than Él’s and Elle, at least in giving voice to those previously haunted by love:

Eventually he catches up with her, leading to a moment of dizzying vertigo (both emotionally and visually) inside a moving streetcar. As Elle speaks to Él, her deflating words are whipped inside the pure elation of light and movement.

Without warning, the idealized, monolithic specter of Sylvia that he’s carried is replaced with something else, alive in the whirling background and endless play of light across her face.

For a fleeting moment, the world opens itself to him with limitless possibilities of beauty. It’s all a matter of perception.

John Lichman writes on film/general oddities, records the Grassroots Podcast at The House Next Door and dances for nickels under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway every Tuesday at 11 am. He tweets here.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor of Keyframe on Fandor.


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