Billed as a drama, Sibyl is in fact a tragic comedy, a brilliantly dry and pitiless one, Kafkaesque in its analysis of a person in self denial and also Kafkaesque in being almost opaque until that “ah-haa!” moment comes along.
Director and co-writer Justine Triet, a fan of Hitchcock and Polanski, dives right in. Even before the opening credits we’ve met Sibyl, a shrink and former novelist who now wants to get back in the writing game. “Don’t do it,” boiled down, is the advice she gets from an old editor friend. But Sibyl does it anyway.
Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is also a recovering alcoholic who really shouldn’t have another drink, and certainly shouldn’t be fantasising about the great times – and sex – she had when she was a boozer. Sibyl has a husband (Paul Hamy) and kids but it’s the guy from the alcohol years she’s fantasising about, in graphic scenes. And given that he’s played by Niels Schneider, you may well too.
But what really does it for Sibyl is the new patient she takes on even as she’s closing her practice to concentrate on the writing. Margot is an actor (it’s Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue Is the Warmest Colour fame) and so desperately in need of counselling that Sibyl makes an exception and takes her on – in spite of a “don’t do it” from her husband.
Unbeknown to Margot, Sibyl starts recording the sessions, to use them as content for her new book – “don’t do it,” says an analyst colleague. Since Margot is an actress, and is pregnant by her leading man in her big-break movie, breaking professional ethics is worth it for material this meaty, in Sibyl’s mind at least.
From here the film forks a bit – we get some more details about teary Margot, her hotheaded lover Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) and the driven director (Sandra Hüller) of the movie they’re making. But mostly the focus is on Sibyl, who is trashing one boundary after another – shrink and writer, shrink and client, sister and sister, mother and daughter, friend and colleague, holiday and work and, at one point, acting and reality. I’m deliberately not going any further into the plot because a) the joy of the thing is in the watching of it and b) it would read as a flat series of events rather than the cosmic fuck-up that Triet turns it into.
A Sybil in ancient Greece was a prophetess who could foretell the future. In spite of warnings from every quarter, this ironically named Sybil blunders on, geographically winding up on the volcanic island of Stromboli as Margot’s on-set shrink for a climax of brilliant messiness which manages to hook in just about everyone involved in the film within the film.
Efira is one of those beautiful 40-something French women who look good in pretty much everything, and Triet deliberately, almost comically, poses her in a variety of outfits as if to prove it – skinny jeans, sober workwear, party gear, nightwear, hair up, hair down, with spectacles and without, make up on and off, clothed and naked. If nothing else it rings the changes while this maelstrom of self-destruction unwittingly brings the pain. If the “ah-haa” moment never arrives, the visuals are a consolation.
I was also much taken with Exarchopoulos, whose dangerously fragile actor might be modelled on Marilyn Monroe – at one point Margot wears a headscarf that seemed very Marilyn to me – and beneath the tears and suicidal tendencies is actually a tough nut.
You can’t say the same about Sibyl. Beneath the successful exterior, this woman who appears to be calling the shots as she negotiates a complete life change is living in state of blithe self-denial.
But the Furies, the cosmos, the Fates have a way of balancing things out. Sibyl sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind. The cosmic, Kafkaesque joke is on her.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020