José Luis Guerín’s Dans la ville de Sylvia finds Xavier Lafitte's unnamed artist returning to Strasbourg and searching for a girl he met six years ago. He sits in a cafe, observing and sketching the women around him until he spies one that looks like the girl he knew (Pilar López de Ayala), and then we're off on a walking tour of the beautiful city as he follows her around.
This is a very quiet, observation film, spare with its dialogue (there's perhaps one scene in the film with any amount of talking). You feel very much like you are people-watching on the street, watching the protagonist watch others. The main scene in the cafe is especially captivating, playing with perspective and reflections. The soundtrack is provided by the natural sounds of the city; buskers playing in the background, shoes clapping against the street, car radios fading in and out as they pass by, and the trolley rolling on its tracks. And the camera continues to linger on a scene long after the characters have passed through the shot, giving you a feel of a living, vibrant city.
The film reminds me a lot of Ana and the Others (Ana y los otros) or Café Lumière in its feel and style.
Actor Xavier Lafitte was present and did a Q&A after the film:
- At the end of the audition, José Luis Guerín asked Lafitte if there was anything else he wanted to add so they could get to know each other better. Lafitte has drawn since he was young, so he told Guerín that. Guerín gave him a pen and a page from his notebook, and asked Lafitte to sketch the casting director. She sat close to Lafitte and Guerín filmed them. Four days later he had to the part, and ten days later they started shooting.
- The screenplay was about 60 pages. After each sequence there was a time written on the bottom of the page; e.g. this sequence must be two minutes.
- Guerín liked to give the actors a frame with some tension in it. He knows what he wants, but also wants to let the actors be free. If the light was wrong or there was too much noise in the background, Guerín would yell cut and have them do it again.
- The frame was precise like in the screenplay, and then the actors can go into the frame or the written pages, and then the film is brought to life.
- The film was shot in Strasbourg in the eastern part of France. They shot mostly in the central part of the city, which is very old.
- Lafitte said it wasn't hard not having to speak in most of the movie. He's French, and in French film they talk a lot. They rehearsed one week before shooting, and he practiced with Pilar López de Ayala the one scene with dialogue, and by the end of the week they were completely bored with the scene.
- The first two days of shooting was for the train sequence.
- For the rest of the film, Lafitte just had to focus on his character, which he envisioned to be a writer, a poet, and an artist.
- Lafitte doesn't know if Guerín would agree with him, but in Lafitte's mind the plot is about getting inside the creative process of an artist. For example, in the first shot of the film, he is very focused on what he wants to write, and that is why he takes a long time to find the right words.
- It's like a documentary about an artist whose main work is to study people in the street; in the world we are all alive, and the artist must show it in his way.
- The sketches in the notebook in the film are not Lafitte's; he has a more precise style. A Spanish artist did the sketches, but they can't find the notebook now.
- Guerín loves France and spent a lot of time in Strasbourg, so it was important for him to set the story there. He built the story with writers like Dostoevsky and Goethe in mind; Goethe wrote a lot in Strasbourg.
- For most sequences, the people in the background are extras; there are very few scenes where they did a wide shot. Some actresses return in later scenese, and that is intentional.
- Lafitte just did a short film in July for Channel 4 in England.