In “Big Red Son”, his essay on the porn equivalent of the Oscars, David Foster Wallace writes about a morally up-standing police detective who is drawn to pornography’s capacity for capturing moments of pure humanity. This is an intriguing idea and it is certainly one that I agree with. Most performances are based upon a degree of artifice : Someone pretending to be someone they or not or behaving in a way that they would not normally behave. The people who appear in adult films usually buy into this notion of performance. The men adopt a worldly misogyny while the women appear to revel in their transgressions of good taste and traditional gender roles. What Foster Wallace refers to as the “Fuck me, I’m a nasty girl” persona. However, because pornography is quite cheaply made and ultimately reliant upon the inviolability of certain basic biological rhythms, the performers sometimes forget the persona they are supposed to be inhabiting. Sometimes these slippages reveal genuine attraction and sexual excitement, but other times there are flashes of irritation, disgust, boredom, amusement or fear. These outpourings of human emotion are made al the more real by the grotesque theatricality of pornography and all the more pleasurable because of their illicit nature. They are supposed to be having passionate sex, we are supposed to be getting off on watching them, and yet we see the actress’s irritation at her male colleague. Score.
I remember when, after a number of years of failing eye-sight, I first got glasses and a world of detailed facial expression suddenly opened up to me. I remember standing in Liverpool Street station and marvelling at the way in which emotions played across people’s faces. How a friendly smile would die on someone’s lips the second the other person looked away or how a momentary flash of irritation would prompt a hard glare at a fried, a glare that would instantly disappear the second the friend turned to ask a question or make a remark. Humans are creatures with rich emotional lives. Lives they try to keep hidden from those around them, and yet those lives are betrayed broadcast to al who care to look by the infinite expressiveness of the human face.
José Luis Guerín’s In The City of Sylvia (2007) is a film that is all about those fleeting moments of humanity. It even invites us to place these little moments in a wider context, but by doing so it raises the difficulties inherent in trying to work out what other people are thinking.
Xavier Lafitte plays an unnamed character credited simply as “El” – “Him”. He is handsome in that elfish way and is equipped with a thatch of wavy hair and a defiantly whispy collection of facial hairs that might be loosely described as a beard were one that way inclined. We encounter him sitting in bed. He has a notebook open in front of him and he holds a pencil in the air. Occasionally the pencil sways back and forth or bobs in a way that might suggest the counting of beats. Perhaps he is a poet. This scene continues for several long minutes before the pencil is dropped to the notebook and He begins writing furiously. He may well be an artist of some kind in search of inspiration, who knows?
The film then follows Him to a local café. It is a brilliant summer’s day and he sits with his back to the wall as he watches the people at the table around him. Occasionally he writes something down, occasionally he sketches something. This scene, which lasts about half an hour, is when In the City Of Sylvia is at its strongest. One of the attractions of art house cinema is that it relies upon a very different relationship with its audience than most mainstream commercial films. Whereas mainstream films tell a story by giving the audience the information they need to make sense of the images, art house cinema relies heavily upon the audience to make their own sense of what they are seeing. Films such as Bergman’s The Silence (1963) or Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) leave gaps where there should be exposition and explanation, thereby inviting the audience to impart their own meaning upon the film. What does the tank symbolise in The Silence? Why do people stop talking about the girl who disappeared in L’Avventura? Does Monkey move the glasses at the end of Stalker (1979)? In The City of Sylvia is a film entirely made up of these kinds of question but it also stresses that life is full of those kinds of questions too. In fact, when we look at other people and see the emotions on their faces, all we have are questions, we are separated from them by an infinite gap between subjectivities. We have to piece together people’s internal lives from the clues that they are willing to give us. For example, why does the blonde girl look so sad when she is smiling? Which of the three people sitting side-by-side and drinking at different rates are actually together? How do they feel about each other? Is there something going on between the young women who lean so close together when whispering in each other’s ears? This scene is so beautiful, its photography so well constructed, and its emotions so real that it is a genuine shame when it comes to an end. I was hoping that the DVD extra would have another couple of hours of people-watching included, but sadly this was not the case.
What lures Him away from his emotional voyeurism is the belief that he has caught a glimpse of Sylvia. A woman he met six years previously at a local bar. He decides to follow her around Strasbourg’s beautiful medieval streets. Sometimes he is breathing down his neck and ready to speak to her, other times he hangs back, other times he loses her. Guerin fills the streets of Strasbourg with real vitality. A lot of the shots seem to have been taken by a camera left running in the middle of the road. People cycle past, we hear snippets of conversation (In The City of Sylvia’s sound is genuinely fantastic), we see a drunk sitting on the pavement and throwing an empty bottle against a wall only for it to roll in tact down the hill. We also start to notice familiar faces such as the colourful street vendor, the obese beggar and the limping man with a bunch of flowers. Because we are given these streets to consider, it is difficult to not ask ourselves questions about who these people are and where they might be going. Who is ‘Laure’, and who wrote “Laure Je T’Aime” on walls all over town?
Of course, the questions that keep the film together as a work of (at least pseudo-) narrative cinema are those relating to Him and his pursuit of the girl he believes to be Sylvia. Guerin is strangely ambiguous about Him and his motivations. Some positive reviews of the film have inferred from His youthful appearance and artistic tendencies a lovelorn and romantic temperament meaning that the film is ultimately about one person’s search for love. However, there is nothing in the film to directly support this reading of it. When He finally decides to talk to the woman he has been stalking and He discovers that “Ella” – She (Pilar López de Ayala) is not Sylvia, She tells him how scared she was to be followed around and how she had tried doubling back on herself and dipping into shops in the hope that She might lose Him. This instantly casts His actions in a rather more sinister light. Some critics have read His actions as misogynistic and creepy, a voyeuristic invasion of women’s space. Indeed, it is just as easy to read Him as a sexual predator as it is to read Him as an angst-ridden romantic. In one scene, he stares at a woman clad only in a bra as she blow-dries her hair in front of an open window. When He is sketching, he also tends to limit himself to outlines, as though he is obsessed with getting a woman but does not care about which one he actually gets. We then see him trying to seduce a woman in a club. Was there ever an actual Sylvia or was the case of mistaken identity simply an excuse for following around an attractive girl. If he did genuinely think he was following Sylvia, why did he not just go up to her and ask her?
The point is that we do not know the answer to any of these questions. We do not know Him and so we can only speculate about his motivations and character. He is on screen for quite a lot of the time and while we might become familiar with his face, his ticks and his raw humanity, we are ultimately separated by the gulf between our different subjectivities. To be In the City of Sylvia is to be surrounded by humanity and yet cruelly distant from it.