Sylvia Bessay



an essay by jonathan rosenbaum

José Luis Guerín’s Some Photos in the City of Sylvia has been described, by myself and others, as a silent, black and white “study” (or filmed “treatment,”or “scenario”) in 2007 that formed the basis for In the City of Sylvia, a color and sound “remake”of the following year. Whether or not this might be technically accurate in terms of causality and financing, it now strikes me as an inadequate way of summarizing the fascinating relation between these two works. I even think it’s an error to view these two films as two versions of the same story — a mistake I made myself when I reviewed them together back in 2008 — because assuming this overlooks too many other things.

Just as there are viewers who prefer Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1983), her feature-length “preview” to her 1986 musical Window Shopping, and others who prefer Jean-Luc Godard’s 54-minute Scenario du Film “Passion” (1982) to his 88-minute Passion (made the same year), it’s entirely possible to prefer Guerín’s 67-minute “sketch” to his 84-minute feature. In some ways, I do myself--as does another critic, Linda Ehrlich, writing for the online Senses of Cinema, and for what I take to be similar reasons: the fact that Some Photos, with its very musical strategies for editing still photographs to simulate motion and play with our sense of duration, arguably leaves more creative space for our imaginations. But this comparison tends to overlook the degree to which that there’s an ongoing dialogue between these films about their separate playing fields, which don’t even define “play” in the same fashion.

The narrative similarities can’t be overlooked. Both films are set in Strasbourg, where an artist (Guerín himself in Some Photos, a much younger sketch artist in the later film) returns after many years (22 in Some Photos, six in its successor) in search of a young woman named Sylvie whom he met briefly on his previous visit (a nurse in Some Photos, a conservatory student in its follow-up), occasioning in both cases a good deal of girl-watching in which the male voyeur follows one or more of these young women down some of the same streets.

But one can also argue that these films are playing quite different games with different rules.In Some Photos, Guerín ‘s first visit to Strasbourg was prompted by a literary pilgrimage relating to Goethe, and later in that film, he travels to other cities on other romantic literary quests as pretexts for his (and our) girl-watching — heading for Florence to “track” Dante’s Beatrice, and then going elsewhere after Plutarch’s Laura. In the City of Sylvia lacks this back story and these pretexts, for our imaginative wanderings and for Guerín‘s. If the first film’s agendas are more open-ended and abstract, this is partly because they preclude any actual human encounter — and a very awkward and protracted human encounter of cross-purposes and even harassment occupies the middle section of In the City of Sylvia, implicating us as well as the hero. Furthermore, the formal differences between black and white still photographs and silence in Some Photos and color, sound, and motion in In the City of Sylvia are too important to be regarded as incidental. The two films even have separate models in separate media: W.G. Sebald’s illustrated 1990 novel Vertigo, with its own lone literary pilgrimages and black and white illustrations, appears to be an overt reference for Some Photos, and Alfred Hitchcock’s languorous 1958 thriller of the same name seems no less pivotal for its sequel (though it also gets cross-referenced in Some Photos — along with Hitchcock’s Psycho via “the Bates Motel”).

Paradoxically, although the better-known In the City of Sylvia is usually regarded as more “commercial,” it arguably has even less of a plot, and even after its own fictional narrative belatedly emerges in the film’s middle section, it doesn’t seem to remain as the dominant element. One might say, in short, that Some Photos is both more avant-garde and more traditional. especially in its use of language. It promulgates the longstanding European idea of cinema as literature by another means, where language and images comingle and collaborate as equal partners in a joint enterprise. Especially relevant here is the example of Chris Marker — a filmmaker who started out as a literary writer, publishing both a book-length essay and a novel in 1949, and who has continued as a photographer and filmmaker chronicling his own travels, albeit choosing to narrate those travels in quasi-fictional terms, with displaced fictional narrators, and sometimes choosing to restrict himself to still photographs. Perhaps Marker’s most famous film — his 1962 short La jetée, which he has called a ciné-roman or a film-novel — is made up almost exclusively of still photographs.

In the City of Sylvia uses language far more incidentally; its French dialogue is sparse and functional when we hear it, and just as often, we don’t hear it at all, even when we see it being spoken. Reflecting Guerín’s background as a film teacher, film theorist, and cinephile rather than his literary taste, this second film seems grounded more in what he has called (in the online Rouge) “a kind of beauty in the Lumière films that captivates me in a very special way…the friction between the desire for control, and chance.” Recalling a dialogue between Henri Langlois and Jean Renoir in a TV documentary by Eric Rohmer about the Lumière films, he evokes a discussion of the Lumière camera operators: “Perhaps they film an avenue in Lyon, and the film, a single reel, a single take, opens with a tramway crossing in foreground from left to right; then, in the depth of field, a carriage, some pedestrians, some kids, cross the road. And just before the film ends, another train comes in the opposite direction, creating a beautiful sense of symmetry. And you wonder: how is so much beauty possible? That modulation of the internal rhythms of the take. It is without a doubt the result of chance. Reality does not allow itself to be captured just like that, by anyone. Lumière’s operators, when they arrived at the locations for the film, spent a lot of time studying the situation, the movements, the light in different hours of the day….As a result of that study of location and movement they could choose the angle, the distance, and the moment to start and end filming. What results is never just pure chance, but there is a way to play with chance and make it work for you. Like making a pact with chance.”

What kinds of pacts with chance is Guerín making in the protracted pursuit that forms the middle section of In the City of Sylvia? The elements of control are of course less obvious in most cases than those of chance. Viewers who haven’t seen Some Photos are unlikely to notice, for instance, Plutarch’s obsession with Laura duplicated here in Strasbourg’s street graffiti, where “LAURE JE T’AIME” crops up repeatedly and with increasing size and prominence on the various trajectories of the hero and his prey. A recurring literary reference, one might say, cropping up by design in the midst of an extended Lumière sequence. And elsewhere, in contrast to the very musical editing of Some Photos, we find the “modulation of the internal rhythms of the take,” where chance itself is taking over the role formerly played by Goethe, Dante, and Plutarch.


Jonathan Rosenbaum is the coauthor, with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, of Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and the author of Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University of Chicago Press, 2010), among other books.


In this poem, the narrator is describing her pregnancy in metaphorical language, exploring an ambivalence about it.

She first announces herself as a "riddle in nine syllables" (the poem is also nine lines long). She then describes herself as an elephant, similar to a huge house. She is also like a watermelon, walking along on two small legs, though she praises both the “red fruit” of her belly and the “fine timbers” of her legs. She then compares herself to a loaf of bread, its yeast rising big and full, and a coin purse stuffed with newly-minted money.

She views herself as simply a “means," a carrier for a child. She is merely a “stage,” a hardworking “cow in calf.” She believes she looks as though she has eaten a large bag of green apples. Ultimately, since there is nothing she can do about her pregnancy, she sees herself as having boarded a train which she cannot leave.


"Metaphors" is a very short poem from 1959. Plath announces that she is a riddle in nine syllables, and then uses a multitude of seemingly unrelated metaphors to describe herself. However, it is clear upon inspection that she is describing a state of pregnancy. The nine lines correspond to the nine months of pregnancy, and each line possesses nine syllables. Plath was pregnant with her first child, Frieda, at the time of the poem's composition. Though most critics concur that Plath's healthiest relationships in life were with her two children, the poem suggests a deep ambivalence about motherhood. The basic conflict is the poem is that of duty vs. individuality. The narrator feels that by subsuming herself to the duty of motherhood, her own individuality is being stifled. Though the poem uses consistent first person, the ironic effect is that the speaker's individuality is only expressed in terms of the child she carries. She is aware of herself, but only in terms of what she cannot be.

While some of the poem's images are rather humorous - she describes a pregnant woman as "a melon strolling on two tendrils," for instance - the overall depiction of pregnancy is not very heartening. The woman, whom readers should assume is Plath herself, is discouraged by her physical appearance. She feels large and unwieldy, comparing herself to an elephant, a "cow in calf," and a "ponderous house." She expresses no joy with her increasing size. Instead, she is too well-aware of how she has lost control of her body. She lacks individuality, and is instead only a "means" and a "stage" for another. Everything happening to her is for someone else, not for herself.

The bleakness of this situation is crystallized in the last line of the poem – "Boarded the train there's no getting off." Here, she suggests that she lacks any agency, and is instead at the mercy of another. She implies that her feelings about the child mean nothing; she must carry the pregnancy to term. She has no choice in the matter. Quite obviously, the stereotypical image of the glowing, exuberant pregnant woman is not found in "Metaphors." The famed Plath scholar Stephen Gould Axelrod agrees, writing that "Beneath the humor of Plath’s imagery, we discover very little real pleasure...indeed, in the last two lines even the humor vanishes, displaced by anxious awareness of remorseless fate."

Upon closer analysis, Plath's choice of imagery reinforces her belief that she is simply a carrier. For instance, an elephant is valuable not for itself, but for its ivory. The timber of a house is valuable only for what it contains - a family - and not in itself. A purse is insignificant; only the money which it holds matters. Her evocation of green apples suggests both a sour, uncomfortable treat, but also offers an implicit allusion to Eve, who ate an apple from the tree of knowledge and thus cursed all women with the legacy of painful childbirth.

It is not surprising that Plath was so ambivalent about motherhood. As a young woman who had high hopes for her academic and literary career, motherhood could, and did, place limitations on her productivity. She had little time to work on her writing after Frieda and Nicholas were born, while husband Ted Hughes could devote his time towards a professional literary career. Resentment grew for her as she placed her husband, children, and housewifely duties before her career. Women in the 1950s and 1960s often experienced this problem, clearly documented in Betty Freidan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Plath's struggle to harness her creative powers amid the overwhelming solitude and monotony of motherhood manifested itself in "Metaphors" even before she gave birth, and she would continue to explore this theme throughout the rest of her life and work.

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