Saturday, December 13, 2008

In the City of Sylvia

The centerpiece of José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia's a stunner: an immersive 20-minute sequence that seems to expand the medium's possibilities of expression. Basically a succession of alternating shots cutting between a young man at a Strasbourg cafe and a series of p.o.v.s as he scans the tables for a long lost love, this scene gets us about as close as cinematically possible to sharing a character's aesthetic headspace. Mostly taking in a succession of comely young women - this pleasant voyeurism troubled slightly by a few dissonant elements, a waitress bringing the wrong order, a glass knocked over, a street peddler aggressively pushing his unwanted knickknacks - the man lingers over his beer, sketches in his notebook and above all looks, but it's Guerín's sound design as much as anything that accounts for the sequence's sense of total immersion. At once disassociated from any specific source and viscerally felt, the swirl of sounds - whispers, footsteps, the clang of glasses - mix together in a heady stew that pounds home the (not unpleasant) cacophony of daily experience before ceding to a pair of street violinists who take over the soundtrack for the segment's conclusion.

In fact Guerín's periodic absorption of diegetic music into the film score represents one of his more fascinating areas of inquiry. In a later scene, he crafts a little mini-essay on the (mis)uses of just such background music to dictate emotions. Fixing his camera on a winding side street, taking in the chatter of young boys or the pounding footsteps of pedestrians, he films a car driving toward the front of the screen, a rousing pop song blaring from the speakers. As the car gets closer, the song gets louder, but, as before, the sound seems disassociated from the image, so that while the increasing volume of the music dictates the imminent occurrence of some outstanding event, the screen shows no activity of any commensurate significance. Cued as we are for action, all we get is the passage of the vehicle. After which the music stops abruptly; the scene's promise of drama left unfulfilled, we have nothing left but to reflect on the (misleading) power of film music.

Sylvia is the second movie opening this week to take the act of looking as its central subject. And as in Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes - which, coincidentally, also makes use of a Blondie song during its narrative climax - the potential oppression of the so-called "male gaze" is addressed more or less directly. In Vigalondo's film, the act of spying on a unconscious nude woman involves the protagonist in a labyrinthine time-travel odyssey in which the burden of causality (is she nude and unconscious because of his actions or are his actions simply recreating the reality that's already existed?) becomes the pivot on which the film's moral inquiries balance. Sylvia's concerns are somewhat less knotty, though the young man's obsessive quest to locate his lost Sylvie involves him not only lasciviously eyeing as many young lovelies as possible, but following a terrified woman through the city streets, her alarm made clear when he finally confronts her on a crowded tram.

The street chase scenes may look terrific - slightly low-angle tracking shots of two attractive young actors walking through a medieval town - but what saves these segments from empty aestheticism is the film's eventual acknowledgement of what exactly it is we've been watching and - since in Guerín's conception to watch is to participate - sharing in. When not-Sylvie tells the young man of the serpentine path she took trying to shake him, for all we may question our involvement in what amounts to an act of proxy-stalking, the pleasures of the act thankfully remain. Guerín ultimately points up his character as a potentially unsavory voyeur (though also perhaps a hopeless romantic), but only by entering the sensory headspace of this questionable young man have we been able to experience such richly satisfying moments of aesthetic immersion.

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