In the City of Sylvia
Directed by José Luis Guerín
Unreleased (United States), Axiom Films (United Kingdom)

My new colleague, a feminist, quickly surveyed the art that hangs in my office. She smiled knowingly when she spotted Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus—my small faded print of the famous nude that hangs in London’s National Gallery. “The classic example of the male gaze,” she said. “There is the naked woman, objectified in her vulnerability, and seen from behind by the dominating male gaze as she in her vanity gazes at herself in a mirror. Isn’t it as much pornography as art?” My answer seemed defensive even to me. I pointed out Velázquez’s stunning and unsettling use of the mirror—“doesn’t it seem as though Venus is watching you?”—and asked her if she had read Foucault’s analysis of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which challenges the authority of the observer’s gaze by suggesting that the painter seems to be looking at us looking at his subject. She had not, and, of course, she was right about me. My favorite nude is a source of erotic pleasure for all the reasons she says. How could I deny it?

I was reminded of this exchange after watching José Luis Guerín’s new film, In the City of Sylvia. Although acclaimed by high-minded cineastes at film festivals around the world, it was panned by feminists at the Venice showing as a prolonged exercise in the male gaze. That negative tagline has stuck ever since, and, for most moviegoers, the feminist critique will seem entirely justified—but only if one fails to engage with the quirky, creative imagination at work in every aspect of this extraordinary film.

In the City of Sylvia is a delicate work, and you have to make an effort to appreciate it. Chantal Akerman made the same comment about her own somewhat similar film, D’est, which collects images of people and places she encountered in her travel from France to Russia. As Akerman said modestly, “I think it’s worth the effort.” Although I tried, my patience was eventually exhausted. D’est never interested me. It seemed no more than a catalogue of faces and places. Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia is more psychologically intriguing. It, too, has no obvious plot, but it works like those old projective psychological tests: you are shown, for example, a picture of a young boy with a violin and asked to make up a story on your own.

José Luis Guerín is a professor of film studies in Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra. If Pedro Almodóvar comes to mind when you think of Spanish directors, then you are on an entirely wrong track. Guerín is cool and meditative, Almodóvar hot and provocative; Guerín makes gentle ripples in the pond of your consciousness, Almodóvar jumps into your unconscious and splashes around; Guerín’s films are a kind of imagistic poetry, Almodóvar’s are surreal melodramas. Guerín’s films rarely get commercial distribution. Like other high-art filmmakers, he has little, if any, interest in plot or narrative. Nor does he see himself as a Spanish filmmaker. A man of enormous erudition, he describes current cinema as “a separate continent,” which all creative filmmakers inhabit.

On both creative and aesthetic grounds, Guerín refuses to use a screenplay. In his view, by beginning film production with a screenplay, producers tie the hands of directors and limit their creativity. And from an aesthetic perspective, he prefers to allow “ideas” to emerge from a situation. His films are like travelogues: he goes to a location (Strasbourg for In the City of Sylvia); he films a situation; edits his takes; and goes back with a “found” idea to shoot some more. The film grows out of this slow process of discovery. It is also a low-cost process; Guerín works with students who are gladly willing to give their time to his projects. Cineastes describe his films as “nonfiction,” and as a teacher his specialty is the documentary.

In the City of Sylvia could easily be dismissed as an obsessive version of the male gaze, but perhaps the protagonist-filmmaker is searching for an ideal that he treasures only in thought.

In the City of Sylvia had a particularly prolonged and convoluted gestation. It took seven years. Guerín had wandered around Strasbourg years ago taking black-and-white photographs of women of the city mostly from behind. He had the idea that the protagonist-photographer-filmmaker was looking for a woman, a nurse named Sylvia, he had known 22 years before. The possibility of encountering her leads him to photograph women near hospitals or clinics. The initial result was Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia, an early version of In the City of Sylvia. Unas fotos is apparently made up of a selection of those photographs patched together, with occasional messages from the director appearing on the screen in white letters on a black background. There is no sound, no plot, and, based on reports, no prurient interest in women’s behinds. It could easily be dismissed as an obsessive version of the male gaze, but consider something else: the protagonist-filmmaker is perhaps searching for an ideal that he treasures in thought—a kind of Platonic form that no instance in the world perfectly exemplifies. Thus understood, the quest is for art, not domination. Think of Velázquez painting the Rokeby Venus: the painting itself is more than the male gaze of those who hang it on their wall.

Drawing on Unas fotos, Guerín worked up an idea of a young man, a dreamer, who goes to Strasbourg to search for Sylvia, whom he met briefly six years earlier in a club, the Aviateur. The film, mostly silent, begins in darkness, and on a table we can make out a cardboard coaster on which she drew something and the key to a hotel room. As daylight starts to seep in, we see a handsome young man (Xavier Lafitte) sitting on the bed cross-legged and looking at a small notebook. The shot lasts an eternity by Hollywood standards. Nothing happens. The man seems to be thinking, then he writes or draws in the notebook. In the narration, Guerín refers to him as the dreamer. He has no name. Eventually he leaves his small hotel, and, map in-hand, heads toward an outdoor café in front of a music and acting conservatory. There he will sit at a table, sip a beer, and stare at women. Gradually we begin to hear the sounds of conversations and watch him as he draws some of the women in his notebook. The film is made up of shots of strangers from his point of view. There are many attractive women.

We begin to get the idea that he is looking for someone. He adds an “s” to the “elle” (“she”) that he has written in his notebook. We can suppose that Sylvia is not exactly an individual person that he is looking for, but a Platonic ideal of which he now thinks there might be many instances in this city.

The only action in the film begins when one particularly attractive young woman (Pilar López de Ayala) leaves the café. He decides to follow her, and we gather that he thinks she might be Sylvia. We hear their footsteps echo with different intensities, setting the mood of the scene and the growing sense of urgency as she realizes she is being followed. He worries that he might lose sight of her. Guerín’s chase scene is as interested in the sights and sounds of Strasbourg as it is in the human drama. The sound in the film is fascinating and inventive. On the one hand what we hear seems to come from what we see happening in the frame, like the sound of footsteps on the pavement. But though it registers as diegetic, it is obviously the work of a creative sound studio, not something recorded on-site during the shot. The blare of the city has been eliminated and replaced by a delightful artistic rendering of the sounds of Strasbourg. Eventually the young man musters enough courage to ask her if she is Sylvia. He discovers that she is not and that she was upset by his stalking. He apologizes repeatedly for the “disaster,” but in fact she is not that angry; she blows him a kiss as they separate. In my mind, she leaves regretting that she is not Sylvia.

The film is separated into sections designated as three nights. On the second night, the man goes to Aviateur and again gazes at young women. He seems to be hitting on one of them who looks a great deal like the first would-be Sylvia, but this one is sexier and aroused by the music. She leaves him to dance by herself and another man soon is dancing with her. I assumed our dreamer had lost out again, but then we see his dark hotel room and can discern the body of a naked woman sleeping next to him. Sexual fulfillment is apparently not enough for him, though, because the next day he begins searching for Sylvia again.

There are several truly beautiful cinematographic moments in the film; in my favorite a woman’s long hair dances in the wind. And there are many attractive, high-cheeked women, all of them similar to the Sylvia of the chase. One, unexpectedly scarred on one side of her face, makes the ideal of Sylvia more human and more encompassing. This is a city of Sylvias.

And for all his voyeurism, I am hesitant to condemn the dreamer as dominant in his gaze. This dreamer is in love with an archetypal memory, or it might better be said that he worships an archetypal memory. His gaze is meek, a sign of his own vulnerability, a sense of his own incompleteness, and his dream of love.