Spanish director José Luis Guerín described In the City of Sylvia (2007) as a "simple" film at last fall's Vancouver International Film Festival, and it certainly does offer a distilled vision of cinematic paradise: gazing and grazing faces, old Strasbourg, and a slow stitch of sound and image.
Our inlet to Sylvia is a whiskered young man, haunting the city at a dreamy remove. He sits in an outdoor café with his notebook, sketching the faces of radiant women while Guerín orchestrates fractal cutting, multilevel staging of faces, and intricately gradated sound design into a sun-dappled symphony. After changing seats, the dreamer recognizes a woman sitting behind a pane of glass. She leaves and he follows, locked in an ambiguous reverie inscribed with resonant detail and sweet ambiguity.
Sylvia fulfills the cinephile's dream of disembodiment. "It's a narrative that comes organically from the fact of making the movie rather than dramatizing a story situation," Hoberman opines. "There's a real love of cinema, the process of it." Each of the film's handful of extended passages is distinct in its precise design, but this blissful lucidity Hoberman describes is Sylvia's central melody and romance.
Late in Guerín's film, after a yearning bar scene set to Blondie's "Heart of Glass," the young man sits at a tram stop, considering the waiting women and rushing window reflections for some clue as to his own loss. In a virtuosic eliding glimpse of a passing bus, Guerín dissolves the sounds and images of shots already superimposed by the panes of glass. A quick succession of several more multi-tiered, unexpectedly conversant portraits of women ("Elles," the dreamer notes in his book) finally lands on a mesmerizing rear-angle of a woman's hair blowing wildly in the wind. The young man can't put pencil to paper. He's as enamored as we are with this siren song from what the director calls "the continent of cinema," a place J. Hoberman knows all too well.
AN EVENING WITH J. HOBERMAN (includes screening of In the City of Sylvia), Sun/27, 6 p.m., Sundance Kabuki
IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA Tues/29, 4 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 9 p.m., Kabuki