Some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve ever had were the ones that never existed.
In 2008’s In the City of Sylvia a young artist returns to Strasbourg, desperate to run into a woman (the eponymous Sylvia) he met six years before. He haunts the cafes and bars they once visited, his gaze scanning every woman who comes within his vicinity. Eventually he spies a woman who looks just like his fantasy, and spends much of the film’s length stalking her through the streets and alleys of the city.
His obsession is with only the sketch of a human being (perhaps even just a caricature). Sylvia has become reduced, lessened, through his mind. Years of replaying certain moments, living in certain fantasies, have erased any rough edges the real Sylvia ever had. The fantasy relationship has always been simpler and more straightforward than the intensity and everyday messiness of loving another person. Strange that a movie, so often concerned with presenting the ultimate romantic fantasy, can so accurately present the reality of an imagined love.
The stalking has an obvious precedent in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the physical transformation of the objectified woman there is replaced here with a mental transformation, as the lingering whisper of a human is mapped onto a stranger’s face.
By focussing much on the followed woman’s profile, Guerín disallows any simple interpretation of the woman purely as an objectified creature. Pilar López de Ayala resists playing any pedestrian expression of fear (though the experience is undoubtedly unnerving) and she denies any attempt of this man to define her. She reflects the banality of his actions. In his mind, he is conducting a great metaphysical romance. In hers, he is a creep. And an everyday creep too, with the likelihood that this has happened before, such is the nature of this world.
She leads him through the labyrinthine alleyways of Strasbourg, the geography ceasing to make sense (much like the lead character’s passion). Identical roads are traversed seemingly miles apart. The city has become a riddle, a downward spiral of obsession from which the only escape can be the gentle ‘No. No more.’
Did he truly think it romantic to follow her? Did he believe the movies a little too much? Guerín cheats us a little, inserting images of de Ayala into reflected surfaces across the movie. We become as obsessed with the memory of her as he is. Would she have ever have found this romantic? The line between creepiness and romance is so slim, and often (though we will never admit it) that line is in the eye of the beholder.
We are unconvinced that he will accept this doppelganger as just that. In all likelihood, the fantasy of her becomes just as powerful as Sylvia’s has been all these years. He will lie awake at night, imagining a love for a woman he stalked through the streets of Strasbourg.
Does he ever escape her? Do we ever escape those lost loves? The memory of a movie can haunt us in much the same way.