In the City of Sylvia begins with an apple, an orange, and a map. A man—scruffy, tormented, a romantic no doubt, suggesting a young Rimbaud or Modigliani—sits on a bed, scribbling on a notepad with the quiet desperation of someone who is blocked, trying to regain time or something lost to memory. At a coffee shop, an epic search begins. A waitress bungles an order, and amid the din of finicky requests and cups and glasses tumbling over, a tale of passion—told in a voluptuous language of spatial-temporal equations—is born, passionately and unpretentiously. The desperately-looking man, let us call him Él (Xavier Lafitte), is unfazed by the noise or the shadows cast by the sun, transfixed by hordes of women—their lips, eyes, hair, immaculate curves—before taking pencil to paper. And so an abstract portrait of an artist as a young lover begins.
The man with the movie camera, writer-director José Luis Guerín, conjures a spellbinding relationship between background and foreground planes, so that a woman in the distance looks as if she were whispering into the ear or caressing the face of a stranger sitting at an adjacent table. It is through a poetic kaleidoscope of bodies, reflected and refracted by mirrors, that one particular girl, let us call her Ella (Pilar López de Ayala), comes into focus and a hunt begins—through the streets of a gorgeous French town where trains cruelly interrupt Él’s pursuit, heartlessly threatening to steal Ella forever from his gaze. Seemingly aimed at voyeurs, the film is built on sensuous interplays between people and objects, reality and representation, implying something profound is at risk here, and the simultaneous thrill and danger of every scene nearly stops the heart.
A recurring bit of graffiti—“Laure Je T’aime”—points to an alternate pursuit panning out elsewhere, or maybe having run its course, hence the men with the hoses bent on erasure. And as Él’s chases Ella through streets and underpasses, suggesting Elmer Fudd running after Bugs Bunny through a hallway impossibly lined with doors, characters pop up time and again, reminders of the constancy of sexual desire or, in the case of a homeless woman who disappears from a corner of sidewalk, the pain of an unfulfilled life or promise. Something to rouse the senses, this sensualist delight is an immaculate expression of the thrill of the hunt and the cruel damage our hearts of glass incur from an unexpected loss or missed opportunity.