In the City of Sylvia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

In the City of Sylvia
Xavier Lafitte, Pilar Lopez de Ayala
Director: Jose Luis Guerin

When he's not making films - and he has only made six features since his debut, Berta's Motives, in1985 - Jose Luis Guerin teaches at University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

More an academic than a conventional director, Guerin's work has mostly focused on literary allusions and film theory experiments - two aspects that are central to In the City of Sylvia.

The film's protagonist, for example, embodies Goethe's lovelorn Werther and French writer Charles Baudelaire's concept of a flaneur: someone who strolls through cities and takes in the urban experience as a detached observer; his search for his love object, which involves him (and thus, the audience) surveying the faces of nearly every woman around him, demonstrates British film academic Laura Mulvey's views about the 'male gaze' in modern cinema.

These devices have made In the City of Sylvia a festival-circuit favourite during the past year, but what elevates this film from other theory-heavy screen experiments is its sheer beauty. And this is not just about the myriad female visages that fill the screen, but also the fluidity with which the camera follows Xavier Lafitte's nameless young man as he wanders around Strasbourg's old quarters looking for Sylvia, a woman he met briefly on a night out.

Thinking he has lost her forever, he spots a young woman (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) who might just be Sylvia, and duly follows her throughout the city until a final confrontation (of sorts) on a tram that does not definitively reveal to the viewer whether or not he has actually found Sylvia.

Lafitte's performance oozes longing at every turn, and it's his measured performance that deflects possible accusations of this film being seen as romanticising stalkers. What makes watching In the City of Sylvia a surreal experience, at the end, is also how Guerin steers clear of the temptation of puncturing the film's aura with that crowd-pleasing moment of truth. Extras: Interviews with Guerin, Lafitte and cinematographer Natasha Braier. (The more curious could look for Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, an accompaniment for the film which, sadly, comes only in a Spanish box set of Guerin's past films.)