Thursday, February 12, 2009


Cast: Xavier Lafitte, Pilar López de Ayala
Director: José Luis Guerín
Country: Spain
Language: French, Spanish
Runtime: 121 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Avant-garde

        Back in the city where I did my graduation from, there was this little South Indian joint that used to have this beautiful girl frequent for a breakfast or a lunch. She was from another college, and we never got around to know anything about her, not even her name, but during that time she was one of the more pleasant constants of our world. We would pass the joint, and we wouldn’t slither at her one of those lustful gazes males are often prone too, but a gaze of the respectful adoration she seemingly deserved. She was beautiful, and none of us friends, even now, would choose any other word to describe her. College passed, cities elapsed, and four years kinda zipped by us. Now that I recount all of it, I observe her presence in our lives was so feeble she didn’t cross any of our minds even once. I visited the city this October, after all those four years, and as I pass the joint, guess what flashes in my mind and what my eyes seek instinctively? I elbow my friend, look towards the joint and he approves. In that city, and in that joint, she has been locked in our memories forever.
        In the City of Sylvia persuades me to share this with you, not because the film is some romantic quest in some obscure European town lit bright in the ten o’clock sun. It sure does start off with such a promise but loops and spirals into something infinitely deeper, and maybe a bit scary. I wake up this morning, and overnight the film seems to have infested itself within me, like experiences so often do. They grow beyond their memory. The film reminded me of this little brushing incident, and then pushed me in a corner. What kind of corner, I’ll explain.
        The narrative is separated into three sections, rather three nights, whose arrival is announced by means of placards. But almost all of it happens during the day. Upon the announcement of the first night, we see a man sitting on a bed with large dreamy eyes lost in reverie in broad daylight. He notes something in his little notebook, which we learn later is a record of sorts of his young bohemian life. We see him next sitting on a bench in one of those European outdoors café with the ten o’clock sun bouncing off everything. Sitting alone. In a corner. How often does the loner assume the role of an observer in a crowd, position himself in a corner, removed from it and exercise his voyeuristic instincts to see and pry? The young man observes with a searching glance, until the sound of a broken cup shakes him from his little indulgence.
        The next moment announces the arrival of the second night, and we see the man sitting in the same café, indulging himself in the same little voyeuristic exercise, and this time the crowd is thicker. He finds himself another corner, creating a neat little personal space, and he addresses his little indulgence again. Is it just a light little exercise for passing his time? We learn the answer, and much more in what is an extended sequence, and Mr. Guerín here creates a masterpiece, both at a philosophical level and how that philosophy guides each and every formal element. Not a word is spoken, for that matter hardly any is in what is at its heart a silent film. Why is it silent? Because it is about the gaze, it is about seeing. From a removed vantage point.
        There are two frames, or POVs, at work here. One’s the cinematic third-person objective gaze, and the other is the man’s subjective romantic gaze. The word romantic ought to be considered in its larger context, for all subjective/imaginative views/gazes are inherently romantic where we append our own notions and fantasies to faces and people we never know. You would appreciate here your own memories of such fleeting voyeuristic indulgences. For a moment be reminded of the day in the mall, or at the movie theatre, where you strolled leisurely, but always positioning yourself for that removed (both horizontally and vertically, and by vertically I mean both in the literal and figurative sense) vantage point. You notice people’s little habits, you notice them talking, you notice their little mannerisms, you notice how they see, you notice how they look, you notice what they wear, and you judge (both positively and negatively). But for most of us it is just a fleeting moment.
        What about the man who indulges himself with a sense of interest? Rear Window sure does come to mind, and that is not the only Hitchcock film that one is reminded of. Those gawking observations when stretched too far might fill your life with those of the crowd, so much so that it might become a purpose, an obsession. Here, we might find ourselves removed physically, but no longer is that the case emotionally. That is what cinema is after all, a gradual transformation from that detached gaze to one seeking purposeful indulgence into other people’s lives. When that happens, how that happens one doesn’t realize, but we always seek such pleasures, and how we try to find a way around anything not eye candy. The young man’s gaze find the more attractive younger woman in focus, and the older women are evaded by casting them out of focus. How masterfully Mr.Guerín orchestrates this little predicament is one that can only be discovered. Words often fall flat.
        The young man’s gaze catches a young woman, and as she leaves the café, he pursues her. He believes she is the Sylvie he has been seeking, the Sylvie he met six years ago in this very city. He starts following her. Streets pass, curve, loop and the following becomes a case of stalking. But here, one ought to consider who the victim is. In our real world, when a female is being stalked, it is she who’s the victim. For a moment consider the guy who indulges in such activity not to mean any harm but to merely embroil himself more and more into her, and his frame of mind, and how arrested it might be. Mr. Sicinski, of the Academic Hack, in an insightful observation in his review here notes how Mr.Guerín turns the tables in the male-stalking-female (literally and figuratively) equation over the mastery of space. There is the world in cinema where the female being pursued desperately tries to hide in corners and veer into blind alleys but she always ends up being caught by the male, who she is never able to shirk away. But here, in this world, which seems to be speaking for some modern feminist (as against a gender-equal) society, the male loses her in those labyrinthine streets. Why it is not gender-equal is because it cannot be, because it might be fundamentally impossible. There always comes the question of the male gaze, and all he brings to the table as an observer. Especially his desires. In the City of Sylvia is a film, I believe, would be appreciated by the male viewer, and all I ask of them is, are we looking at the man or with the man. But I wonder how the female viewer might perceive it. What I fear the most is the “I was bored” reaction.
        The casting choice for the man is one immensely interesting. Mr. Lafitte, with his feeble presence, his lost eyes and ridiculously thin framework is almost completely feminine, such that it immediately draws around itself an air of vulnerability. He stalks, and one might be remembered of Vertigo. It is important to consider where that kind of obsession leads to. The casting of the woman is some sort of a masterstroke too. Ms. Ayala, with her earthly glow, is one of those beauties who immediately command a degree of respect as against a degree of lust.
        The final sequence at the tramway stop is another thoughtfully conceptualized insight. Women, lots of them, are almost hurled at the man, and us. In that moment we seem to be one with him, and we are caught in what is a whirlwind of mostly attractive women. So many of them, and as the wind blows their hair, the pages of the man’s little notebook, with all the sketches and notes, flutter too. You should see what’s peculiar to all the sketches. You know what? That girl I talked about, I don’t even remember her face. What I do remember is the idea of her. For some reason that is what scares me.


Srikanth said...

I've not seen teh film.

But I would like to know why you chose to see and write on this specific film from 2007...

man in the iron mask said...

Srikanth this film was indeed released in 2007, in Spain. But then, I only got to know of it in 2008, and its international release was in 2008. For me, that makes it a 2008 film. :)

PS:Please do allow me a leeway of one year, here and there.

Srikanth said...

No no... not about the time. BUt why you chose this film? As in, this one is out of teh Oscar race, or even out of theatres I believe. Or is it because jou saw it just before teh review?

I have no problem with years. In fact, older the better!

man in the iron mask said...

Oh, I'm trying to watch every film that is out there. Not the Oscars, not the Baftas. I dont want to care about nothing. See, if I need to share my best of 2008, I got to see everything that is out there, or at least try to.

And this film is.
And how can you, or me overcome that obsession that drives us to watch everything? We cannot, and I watch. :)