Sunday, January 4, 2009

In the City of Sylvia

Only partly a narrative film, In the City of Sylvia (2007) is a playful, painterly film by José Luis Geurín that, somewhat like its unnamed flaneur hero, spends much of its time idly watching the (mostly female) customers at an outdoor café and navigating the streets of an unidentified European city, whose historic architecture is contrasted with the futuristic streetcars that swoosh through its streets at regular intervals. A film of few words, it has a dense, highly constructed soundtrack of ambient sounds that forcefully alerts us to all sorts of seemingly irrelevant details in the frame.

The film begins by establishing the routines of the flaneur (Xavier Lafitté), a young man with long hair and a wispy goatee. Everyday he leaves his hotel room and walks to a nearby café, located in front of a conservatory, to sketch the other customers in his notebook. There is a long, extraordinary sequence in which he sits and makes sketches of the customers. Cutting between the customers, the flaneur's gaze and the drawings he makes in his sketchbook, the camera frames each customer as if the subject of a portrait. Some are silent; others talk, though we can't make out their conversations amidst the chatter. When the flaneur can't see one woman's face, he gets up and sits down at another table facing her. Hovering around the customers are the waitress, a black street vendor, a homeless man and two musicians who the flaneur can't sketch because they keep moving. As the flaneur, Lafitté gives a subtle performance that consists largely of glances and reactions.

Earlier in the film, when the flaneur leaves his hotel, the camera continues rolling on the street long after he's left the frame, as a number of pedestrians pass in front of the camera. This shot lays the groundwork for the second and longest part of the movie, in which the flaneur sees a young woman wearing a red dress (Pilar López de Ayala) sitting in the conservatory. When she leaves, he gets up and follows her. As she walks through the city, never turning to show him her face, we hear a loud clacking on the soundtrack with each step she takes, even though she appears to be wearing sandals with soft soles. When a car passes through the frame, the sound is similarly loud but fades almost immediately after it's out of sight. Through his exaggerated foley effects (which reminded me of the films of Jacques Tati), Geurín draws our attention away from the woman to other things happening in the frame, which the flaneur is in too much of a hurry to notice. When the woman and the flaneur begin to walk faster, the effect is like turning the dial on a radio. As he continues to follow her, patterns begin to emerge as motifs and characters reappear throughout the film. For instance, the words "Laure Je t'aime" are spray painted all over the city. Likewise, a man with a limp carrying a bouquet of flowers appears several times, as do a number of other characters. When the camera returns to the same spot more than once, the film becomes a kind of perceptual game, inviting us to spot both the similarities and the variations. Although reviewers--latching on to its themes of voyeurism and obsession (not to mention the streetcars)--have compared it to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), the tone of Geurín's film is entirely different, droll and amusing where Hitchcock's film is anguished.

Geurín has been making films since the mid-1980s, both fictional and non-fictional, but this is the first I've seen, and it shows him to be a major talent with a highly original grasp of film language. The film's rich soundtrack doesn't merely accompany the images but directs us where to look, and the images themselves are gorgeously composed. It's sad to reflect that many filmmakers, and a lot of reviewers, regard form (sounds and images) as simply a means to record pro-filmic content (story, performance, sets and costumes), as if content existed apart from its form. Geurín creates moments of fleeting, ephemeral beauty from things all around us, making us more alert to cinema and to the world we all live in.

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