In ‘Sibyl,’ the relationship between art and psychology becomes the basis for an overwrought psychosexual drama. But etched within is also one of the New York Film Festival’s funniest movies.
The first scene of Sibyl involves the title character played by Virginie Efira telling her literary agent about her new plans. She will quit her job as a therapist after ten years to return to her love of writing fiction. When the agent explains that she is too boring to be successful, he mentions the stories of people like Amanda Knox. The kinds of stories that SELL. And naturally, by the end of the film, Sibyl has found her story. She meets a client named Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Color) that feeds her interests and her personal drive and becomes both Sibyl and Sibyl filmmaker Justine Triet’s muse. And, naturally, everything falls apart. Both in the film and for Sibyl, no one knows what to do for the rest of the film. Either they put all of their focus onto the story of Margot, or they’re all too aimless.
This is the crippling factor of Sibyl, a film so much more based on the curiosities of Margot’s career than in the life of Sibyl. While Efira plays Sibyl with an energy comparable to Gena Rowlands in a John Cassavetes film, the story she finds herself in is too weak to support the talent of the actress. From upsetting plot lines about sexual assault and alcoholic relapses to a family history too complex to engage with, Sibyl’s life is just overall unenjoyable. The performance and desperation are great, but the lack of focus turns the melodrama into a joke. For a solid third of the film, all I really engaged with was the life of Margot and her pregnancy by co-star Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) and “Sibyl the Vaping Writer”.
But then Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann) is introduced as Margot’s director and Igor’s husband, Mika Sanders. And for about 40 minutes we see that Sibyl is a brilliant comedy with a killer supporting actress performance. Hüller elevates the film and its satirical tendencies to a completely new level. For how offputting the timeline hopping in Sibyl’s life or the constant brutality and manipulation faced by Margot can be, we are gifted a third of the film. There, showbusiness humor and linguistic jabs (by a female director of a fictional female director) overrule. The end of the sequence is itself some of the smartest filmmaking I’ve seen in a long while, the movie-within-a-movie’s near-collapse revealing itself as comedic gold.
If I had my way, Sibyl would be 80% satire and 20% sex thriller. Instead it is nearly the opposite, but still, I focus almost exclusively on the positives. With that in mind, I recommend Sibyl lightly. It is about as darkly funny as Elle, but with marginally less to say. The film does not fail, but when you see the cast and crew’s potential in that second act you are left wanting SO much more. If The Knockturnal gave number reviews I would call this a solid 7/10. But the brief moments of 10/10 energy are all I was left thinking about.
Sibyl is seeking a United States distributor