Experienced filmmakers often wind up holding a mirror to their medium. Examples in this year’s Cannes competition lineup ranged from the nostalgia of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to Pedro Almodóvar’s melancholic “Pain and Glory” and, finally, French director Justine Triet’s twisty and enjoyable third feature “Sibyl.” Premiering at the tail end of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, her stylish black comedy is less invested the artistry of storytelling than in the hangups of trying to tell a story in the first place. Eventually, it stumbles on that same challenge.
Sibyl (a jittery Virginie Efira)i s a psychotherapist so driven to write a novel that she drops her clients to buy herself some extra time. She’s barely started to contend with writers’ block (and the distractions brought on by husband and young kids) when a new client finds her way to Sibyl. Young actress Madeleine (an energized Adele Exarchopoulos, in her most involving turn since “Blue is the Warmest Color”) calls Sibyl in tears over an accidental pregnancy; the father is Igor (Gaspar Uliel), the dashing lead with whom she’s set to star in a new romance directed by revered German auteur Mika (“Toni Erdmann” star Sandra Hüller). And if that wasn’t thorny enough, Mika and Igor used to be an item as well.
It’s the kind of ludicrous soap-opera mess that, on its own terms, would make for overwrought drama; Sibyl, however, sees opportunity: Hitting a covert record button as Madeleine spills her woes and contemplates whether she should get an abortion, Sibyl begins the sneaky process of transforming her patient’s story into the material for a novel. In the meantime, she’s haunted by memories a lustful romance with a former flame (Niels Schneider), and grows conflicted about just how much she should help the secret object of her new creative outlet. “Stop analyzing her,” Sibyl’s own shrink says. “You can’t even analyze yourself.”
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For its first two-thirds, the movie hovers between the elegance and eroticism of a shrewd psychological thriller. Sibyl’s old affair illustrates just how much she’s drawn to danger as a means of escape, and to that end, finds a clever parallel between her erotic and artistic desires. “Sibyl” assembles the occasional meta-commentary on the pratfalls of storytelling in the 21st century; much like fellow French auteur Olivier Assayas’ recent “Nonfiction,” Trier’s story is a riotous sendup of the dangers facing narrative in an age of distraction. “People are saturated with information,” one character says. “Writers have less influence.” The movie often struggles to balance its multiple strands, but it frequently lands on enthralling philosophical observations at the core of Sibyl’s uncertain trajectory.
As with Triet’s previous two features, “Age of Panic” and “In the Bed With Victoria” (also starring Efira), “Sybil” is the intercine story of a troubled woman struggling to resolve her internal challenges. For its first two thirds, Trier’s script maintains a sharp blend of mystery and subtle humor as it maps out the power dynamic between Sibyl and Madeleine, who may or may not be telling the whole truth about her situation. From there, Triet goes in a comedic direction when she sends Sibyl to help Madeline contend with Igor and her boss while on a film shoot in an exotic location. There, the entire production is riddled with neuroses and needs Sibyl’s help, but she only makes things worse. While that leads to some amusing commentary on the combustible nature of film shoots – one sequence in which Sibyl watches the actors shoot a love scene builds to a hilarious outburst — it comes at the expense of the far more subtle portrait of Sibly’s moral challenges.
Ultimately, “Sibyl” becomes a brighter, sillier, film-within-a-film spoof of the Woody Allen variety, and sends Sibyl careening further into a black hole of drunken resentment and self-destruction that underserves her character. Still, the movie remains a spirited look at how tension can run high on troubled sets, and gives the ever-talented Hüller the opportunity to elevate the material with her portrayal of the ultimate reckless auteur. There’s much to appreciate about the meta-commentary at the center of this lively work, but “Sibyl” ultimately becomes a victim of the same pressure to deliver a big, showy narrative that its troubled protagonist so desperately wishes she could tell.
“Sibyl” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.