Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"In the City of Sylvia" (2007)

Guerin's "city of women" is also an inherited city, one passed down from the nineteenth century -- it is not, in this respect, an invented city, and the film is not quite as original as it means to be. But "originality" is hardly the point: Guerin is exorcising -- or exercising -- the dominant aesthetic model that old world cities still tend to radiate, even a century after an era of prolonged, lingering high romanticism. Strasbourg, the actual and very real Strasbourg, stands in for this reconstructed City of Sylvia, an ancient medieval city, and one whose antiquity cannot be completely shed in the minor tragedies of european 21c fashion. A city of streets, if we look at Strasbourg with etymological lenses, streets which could replace any streets living and breathing in the old world now or long before, representative of a fixity of time and place, in which Baudelaire would have walked and written poems aux passantes and of which Benjamin would have collected for his arcades project. The realism of Strasbourg is swiftly converted into the surrealism of a generic highly literary european town, in which the beauty of strange women plays as the central protagonist, a supreme object of sight that is suddenly, imperceptibly, transformed into a subject of aesthetic, or rather, epistemological resistance.

What is realistic is the hesitation of the nameless poet-artist (let us imagine someone less attractive, less becoming, than this stand-in fashion model) because his hesitation has a basis in the personal experience of a great many men frustrated by catching beauty on the street or in the cafes and bars of the world: one doesn't simply follow and pursue women this way without expecting the perils of shame and castigation. Fortunately for our fashion model protagonist, his voyeurism only gets him a slap on the wrist, and hardly that: we can see that "Sylvie" is partly terrified, partly aroused, by the prospect of a handsome man pursuing her through the day-lit streets of Strasbourg. Only in a 19c literary world, one belonging to the White Nights of Dostoevsky or in the contes of Maupassant, would this story have continued in a believably literary manner, in which the characters would have submerged into an elaborate intimacy after the merest glance or word was exchanged. In a postliterary world, this is no longer the case: but Guerin is aware of this dearth in literary emotion, and he relies as much on cinematic myths as he does on literary ones. The "following" setpiece, in which the protag discovers his "Sylvie" while people-watching at a cafe and pursues her down circuitous streets and alleyways, makes obvious reference to similar setpieces in Vertigo, another fable in which a man consciously/unconsciously seeks out the form of a woman (as opposed to the actual woman herself) he remembered from years back, only to find that her form has gradually blurred into a doubling of vision, equally carnal and phantasmal, equally literary and cinematic (literary, if we consider the renewed attention Guerin gives to the sketches and outlines and poetic fragments that litter the protag's notebook, and cinematic, if we consider the light effects Guerin employs to disorient the spectator as he follows the path of Sylvie through progressively unreal avenues of pursuit). The woman may or may not correspond to the fragile, infinitely pliable memory that serves as his guide and itinerary, but the search for women past leaves a reconstructed city in its wake, a recalibration as cinematically adventurous as the dream-city setpiece on view in Inception. Guerin only has to remind us that "Sylvia" is the ghost of an idea, the flimsiest trace of an emotion lost, rather than a real person whose narrative is on the verge of being told, to get us to pursue his affections further.