One of the most striking aspects of José Luis Guerín’s preceding film, En Construcción is the recurring image of cast shadows in motion as a metaphor for the “ghost residents” of El Chino – the migrant laborers, evicted tenants, and even unearthed ancient corpses whose traces of existence and personal histories are gradually being displaced by the gentrification of the port town. In retrospect, the reappearance of these elusive, transient shadows in In the City of Sylvia (this time, as phantasmagoric projections onto the wall of the dreamer’s hotel room) also provides the haunted tone of the film as the young traveler (Xavier Lafitte) – an artist and dreamer – returns to the cosmopolitan, medieval city of Strasbourg where, six years earlier, he had met a woman named Sylvie at a bar. For the dreamer, Sylvie is also a ghost, a remembrance of things past that grows sweeter in the abstraction of memory, and all he can do is to attempt to recapture her essence and give form to the ideal by immersing himself in the atmosphere of her city. Spending his waking moments religiously jotting down details and random observations in his sketchbook (a figurative act of historical reconstruction) – the cut of the hair, the curve of the neck, the shape of the mouth – these (appropriately) faceless, impressionistic sketches begin to converge and overlay each other within the faint intersections of their organic, evolving stories in the pages of his notebook (in one episode, a distracted waitress, annotated as “elle”, is placed in the milieu of the café’s equally interesting patrons and re-annotated as “elles”; in a subsequent episode, the dreamer’s quick succession scanning through his notebook suggests flipbook animation, in a sense, making Sylvie come to life) until one day when he spots a young woman (Pilar López de Ayala) who may or may not be Sylvie through the window of the café. As in En Construcción, the seemingly incidental, interstitial sequences of passing shadows become a reflection of a resurfaced, dislocated past – a transformed memory that not only grows more ephemeral with the passage of time but also continues to reinsert its own vitality in the present. In a way, the stories of these ghosts, like the idea of Sylvie, never completely fade away even in their conscious supplanting: their histories retold in the silent architectures (most notably, in a graffiti proclaiming “Laure – Je t’aime” that traces the dreamer’s pursuit of Sylvie), passing conversations, recycled artifacts, accidental encounters, and recounted – and often, colored – personal histories chronicled in the animated chapters of an eternal, quixotic quest.
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