Sibyl is a therapist, but what she really wants to be is a writer. She’s a recovering alcoholic with two children in a marriage just a little south of sterile, with a mother from whom she is estranged and a neurotic sister she likes to keep close by. When she reveals to a friend who she hasn’t seen in a long time about her writing plans, her drones on and on about himself and Sibyl nearly fades away into obscurity. But Sibyl is very much present – in fact, maybe even too present, because as her handle on her sense of self and well-being becomes less steady throughout the course of the film, her presence because much greater than what she wants it to be, and she gets closer to losing control. Sibyl wants to be seen, but only on her own terms. Sibyl wants love and success, but what she really wants is something very foreign to her: peace.
Sibyl, from French director Justine Triet, feels like the spiritual ugly stepsister of Gloria Bell, two films about troubled, middle-aged women searching for an escape, but also stability at the same time. For Gloria Bell (played by Julianne Moore), the escape is a tumultuous romantic fling with a man who has even less of a handle on his life than she has on hers, but whose presence she initially yearned to balance her out; for Sibyl, the escape is in the new novel she’s writing, a passion project based from her love of writing which proceeded her eventual career path of psychotherapy. However, Sibyl delves into an uncomfortable level of darkness and black humour that Gloria Bell dares not touch, as Sibyl finds herself caught in a maelstrom of personal crisis between that of her encroaching new patient and the interrogation of her complicated, toxic past.
The film alternates between Sibyl’s (Virginie Efira) past as an alcoholic in a passionate but wildly unstable romance, and her present as an aspiring writer attempting to wean herself off of her psychotherapy patients – instead, falling for the creatively-inspired melodrama of one in particular. A young woman named Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos) proves to be especially erratic and unpredictable, emotionally unbalanced and finding herself in a fervent love affair with a married actor, Igor Valeski (Gaspard Ulliel). As Margot has gotten unexpectedly pregnant by him, and relays to Sibyl her internal torment caused by what to do about the baby and her relationship, Sibyl falls deeper into the intricate web tangled by their mess. She eventually becomes whisked away to the illicit couple’s film set on the island of Stromboli, where they’re shooting a movie directed by Igor’s wife exasperated wife, Mika Sanders (Sandra Hüller)
At this point, the film falls decidedly into black comedy, with Sandra Hüller’s performance a standout as the most pointedly hilarious. The vexation caused by discovering her husband’s extramarital endeavours with his own costar fuels the source of her quietly abrasive “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, which Hüller hones with the utmost precision and striking zeal. And though it’s here that the film finds itself at its lightest, it’s also where Sibyl finds she’s losing herself the most. The reliance on Sibyl begins to far extend Margot’s unhealthy dependence on her, but to Igor, Mika, and the rest of the film crew as well. It overwhelms Sibyl and climaxes when she’s forced to direct an entire scene after Mika bails, and where Sibyl realises how far she’s fell down the rabbit hole chasing after the high of other people’s chaos; a feeling quite inconspicuously paralleled with the scenes of her love affair from years gone by. Sibyl’s desires for other people’s burdens causes her to get lost in a story that doesn’t belong to her – her own story becoming written by other people.
Though it does have a nasty habit of dragging from time to time, Sibyl never feels clunky. It’s far from the most bold or creative film, but it works as a sleek portrait of a complicated woman reckoning who she once was with who she wants to be. Sibyl is addicted to the highs and lows of emotional bedlam, seeking it outwardly when she no longer has any source of it in her quiet, domestic life. Sibyl is exceedingly empathetic, but she’s also frustrating, upsetting, selfish, and, most importantly, very real. Sibyl the film is as messy as Sibyl the person – a mish-mash of tragedy and comedy, of melodrama, of ugliness, and also beauty. Sometimes Sibyl is uncomfortable, and sometimes it is glorious. You have to stick through the bad shit to get to the good. Isn’t that what life is, anyway?
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs