In the City of Sylvia
Sheltering the Daydream
How to film the ethereal without losing sight of the concrete? In a recent article in Cities in Transition, a book on the city in film, Franois Penz proposes that most films use the city as a backdrop and only the occasional filmmaker finds ways to respect it either as a character within the film, or, if a backdrop, a backdrop to be logistically respected. Indeed, why should filmmakers pay it much attention? According to a couple of researchers in media psychology they found after various experiments on viewer perception: "that film viewers have only minimal commitment to the particular details that inhabit filmic space." But then there are always filmmakers who expect from the viewer a higher degree of commitment to particular details than most. Penz explores how Jacques Rivette's Pont du Nord is a good example of utilising Paris as a character within the film, while Eric Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife is a film entirely respectful to Paris in its utilisation of backdrop. In Rivette's film, the director shows us a Paris that gives rise to narrative events as the leading characters read all sorts of signs and meanings into the city's sights as they wander around. This is the city offering space for the fantastic flaneur, for the sort of walking fantasist who doesn't walk purposely from one place to another, but casually from place to place and gains meaning from the chance situation and by projecting onto the world they see as they defy topographical accuracy for peripatetic flights of fancy. As Penz says, "we observe the characters accomplishing great leaps across the city regardless of the topography within a very tight time frame." In Rohmer's film, Penz documents the characters' movements with complete respect for the city's spatiality. "...the main character, indicates in the conversation that he is about to go and drop a note at his girlfriend's flat, number 56 Rue Rennequin (17th arrondissement). He then proceeds to take a metro and re-emerges at the Peireire station on the Place du Marechal Juin, which is indeed the closest station to the Rue Rennequin" etc. The characters won't transcend real space through film space, where the story dictates the characters' direction. No, in Rohmer's film the city to some degree, or least logistically, dictates the character's actions: as in Rohmer's Paris set debut feature the Sign of the Lion, there is a documentary aspect to the film that makes it interesting as a time capsule As Penz points out, Rohmer has always been fascinated by architecture; once saying that "if I hadn't become a film director, I would have been an architect". In the late sixties Rohmer made a number of documentaries on French new towns, as well as Le Bton dans la ville with the great topographical theorist Paul Virilio.
This leads us to Jos Luis Guern's In the City of Sylvia - a film that seems to offer a space between Rivette's fascination with the fantastic elements of the city; and Rohmer's documentative specificity. It is the sort of film that so richly captures a sense of location that to ask where the film is set doesn't feel like an idle question. But at the same time it is a film that brings out the mystery of place as it works from the projective subjectivity of its central character, played by Xavier Lafitte. As Lafitte wanders around the town sitting reading, writing or sketching in his room and a cafe, we may wonder what it is that he sees and what it is that he fantasises over, but Guerin's resolutely plausible mise-en-scene gives to the subjective a mysteriousness perhaps much greater than the generated mise-en-scene of a mannerist utilising a studio for similar effects. As he films in Strasbourg, what he does is make the city his own through his character's perspective, and at the same time leaves the city almost completely untouched. In a lengthy caf scene outside the acting school in the city, it seems as if Guern is documenting the people his central character watches, while at the same time he films Xavier Lafitte.
This is really the question we want to broach, taking into account the comments by Penz on the city: what is it to film and what is it to document? The former suggests a determination, the latter its absence. One contains the desire to shape; the other the need to capture what is passing. Many films minimise the passing and emphasise the shaping, so that all that is left of the documentative is the actor's visage and a few stray details of the period: the clothing, the cars the characters drive, the furnishings. But in general, such films care little for the singularity of the time, date and place. Whether it is an Argentinean film like Nine Queens, or a German film like Run Lola Run, or British films such asTrainspotting, all set quite specifically in the cities of Buenos Aires, Berlin and Edinburgh, there is nevertheless no question within the setting that asks what is New York, Berlin or Edinburgh. They all lack the documentative because the documentative within fiction film is also a question about the city. Nine Queens, Run Lola Run and Trainspotting all recognize specificity of place in relation to subject (no matter if the latter was partly filmed in Glasgow), but not as aspect. They film the city to contain the story, but Guern seems almost to tell the story so as to document the city: to capture its aspect. It makes sense that a film about heroin in the eighties should set itself in a city famous at that time for its number of heroin addicts, but this also shows Trainspotting taking the path of least resistance in relation to its subject. By zeroing in on the expected, the subject is covered but not the aspect.
But how to film the aspect, and has this been central to much of Guern's other work, including Innisfree, a film about the making of The Quiet Man on the west coast of Ireland, and En Construccion, focusing on the gentrification of a poor district of Barcelona, films where Guern films patiently, as if waiting for the location to yield itself to him? To do so the filmmaker cannot assume that the city is a given within the story, so that it can become anonymous backdrop or prominently fore-grounded in key moments: as we find in an early scene of Renton running from the police in Trainspotting, in some of the scenes where Lola runs from place to place in Run Lola Run. In each instance the city is a backdrop with an occasional foregrounding. But others like, for example, two great New York films of the seventies, Taxi Driver and Manhattan, seem to ask of the city what it means to characters that, in very different ways, are absorbed by the place in which they live. In Taxi Driver the aspect is dystopian; in Manhattan essentially utopian: this is the same city but the strength of the aspect upon it radically transforms it. Scorsese utilises an expressionist yet nevertheless plausibly realist colourism that infernalises the city; Woody Allen a muted, melancholic monochrome to create the city as an intimate, emotionally focused space. They remain great films of the city by virtue of finding in that city an aspect that makes the space the filmmaker's own, without in any way denying the scope of the place in which they film.
But what is Guern's aspect on Strasbourg; what does he want this small French city near the border of Germany, home to an illustrious acting school, an 11th to 15th-century cathedral, and of course the European Council, to illustrate? It seems first of all to be a liminal place, and when Laffet first walks out of his room and onto the streets we hear both French and German as we try to locate ourselves as Guern makes the space familiar and at the same time obscure. With great attention to sound, and an attentive sense of observation, Guern insists the viewer sink into a space that at the same time cannot quite be our own: it is the indeterminate relationship between the city as given and the imaginary relationship the character has with the space that he is in, that makes the film a Symbolist work without symbolism, a Surrealist work without surrealism.
But what do we mean by such apparent paradoxes? Maybe invoking the great late nineteenth century novel, Bruges-la-mort, by Georges Rodenbach, and also Hitchcock's Vertigo, will help. Both are works that invoke symbolism within a notion of the real: for both are cities of the mind as well as cities of reality. Bruges-la-mort is a rare novel illustrated with photographs from Bruges, though the narrator's relationship with the town and the woman who resembles his dead wife, is hardly without a strong imaginary dimension. Meanwhile Hitchcock's most fantastic film, the film most given to the oneiric, with the richest colour scheme, and with the most fixated of central characters, is also the one that most vividly gives the viewer a sense of place: from Golden Gate Bridge to the hilly, windy streets of San Francisco, this can only be but one city in the US. The director utilises actual spaces to bring out the imagination of his central character, just as the writer in Bruges-la-mort vividly depicts actual spaces to focus the yearning his character feels for his late wife and the woman whom he falls for who passes through the same streets years later.
But why do we invoke and reject the symbolic and the surreal? We do so because in all three works - in Bruges-la-mort, Vertigo and In the City of Sylvia - the relationship between character and city is offered as a dialectical tensionbetween the imagination on the one hand and the brute existence of place on the other. If the works were simply symbolic - and Bruges-la-mort is often viewed as a masterpiece of Symbolist writing - that tension would dissolve into the imaginary as place becomes secondary to character. The other characters and the location would become less important than the imagination, and a street would symbolise a character's feelings and lose its topographical significance to symbolic import. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica states, Symbolists believed that "underlying the materiality and individuality of the physical word was another reality whose essence could best be glimpsed through the subjective emotional responses..." The same sort of dissolution would be true of a Surrealist work, where the actions would become increasingly dreamlike as the topography became denaturalized. It as though we need a different term to describe the intertwining of space and place to make sense of this intertwining of the imaginary deeply activated and the space vividly depicted, and the 'interfacial resistance' as they cannot give way to each other.
What happens here is that they mutually underscore and undermine each other. Think of the scene In The City of Sylvia where our central character follows the young woman around the town centre and gets lost in the labyrinthine streets that make up so many of France's old towns, from Avignon to Montpellier, from Cherbourg to Nimes. These are streets where it is easy to lose one's bearings, but Lafitte's character is also someone who may want to lose those bearings. He arrives in the town as a stranger and, in the early stages of the film, we see him looking at various faces as he sits outside the cafe he frequents as if at the same looking for the past while he searches out his future. He may really be looking for someone from his past; but that doesn't mean the past was finally in this town; more that the town gives him the possibility to lose himself in the tranquil beauty of both the place and the faces he projects upon. As he looks, in the lengthy caf, scene from face to face, as Guern holds on numerous faces as if to say which one will become Laffite's potential lover, the film proposes as much the potentiality of place as remembrance of things past.
When we use the term interfacial resistance it is to try and describe the way the film dissolves categorical meaning partly through refusing the symbolic and surrealist. It doesn't want to push the subjectivity so that it becomes imaginary or oneiric, but the place isn't simply realist either. Why so many physically disabled characters passing through the frame; why so many beautiful young women and obese, exhausted looking older men? Perhaps the best way to describe it is that a character lost in his own thoughts comes to a place where he finds those thoughts in such a way that he can hold onto his imagination, and the place complements that imaginary possibility without itself being changed by the subjectivity applied to it.
This leads us to a key question the film addresses, and central to why we've so determinedly rejected both the symbolic and the surreal, the dissolution of character or the dissolution of place. It is the question of how do we find places in the world - cities, towns, villages, buildings, flats, seascapes, landscapes, whatever it might be - that capture the demands of the soul. How do we find spaces that we don't transform with our minds, but that coincide with our thoughts? From a narrative point of view Guern's film may seem an insubstantial account of a young man looking for his past in a small French city, but it is much more rewarding from a spiritually adventurous point of view where the filmmaker wants to search out places that assuage our existence without us transforming it, or it transforming us. Should not this be the point of travel; that we travel not to find the places that we read about it in books, magazine and newspapers and that demand yet another look of awe as we gawp at the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, La Sagrada Familia or Buckingham Palace, but instead a place that brings out feelings that we couldn't quite have anywhere else and yet belong to a place that we couldn't readily guess would generate them within us? Guern is 'obsessed with the essentially cinematic qualities of travel and motion' the Harvard film archive proposes, but we would claim even more that his fascination resides in finding places in which thought can exist, and immanent qualities become apparent. As Gilles Deleuze once proposed in a 'Letter to Serge Daney', "so what reason [for travel] is there, ultimately, except seeing for yourself, going to check something, some inexpressible feeling from a dream or a nightmare..." That is, to find within oneself that which is out there, somewhere, a place that we don't alter and which doesn't especially alter us - but in some curious way expressesus, our moods, our hopes, our desires. Gaston Bachelard, speaking of the house that he sees as a "privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space", adds, later, "this being the case, if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." Can the same be said of certain towns and cities? Guern's enigmatic work, with a central character who barely speaks, and whose feelings we must intuit chiefly through his regard, is a fine exploration of this obscure need for the possible in all its topographical elegance. In Guern's fictional essay on feelings and space Strasbourg really does manage to become a character in the film
© Tony McKibbin