In Sibyl, Virginie Efira pulls together a bizarre film and a hot mess of a character with her cohesive, hilarious performance.
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It’s extremely hard to pin down Sibyl, a film that refuses to be any one thing. It shifts tone from melodrama to thriller to farce and back again, in reaction to Sibyl’s rollercoaster of emotions. How do you make sense of an alcoholic who has tried to strictly control her life, gotten bored, and tried to return to the place where she was when she stopped drinking? Only to be caught in the web of a series of dramas?
And yet Virginie Efira pulls it off effortlessly. She creates a woman who is a hot mess in a performance that is deliberate, thoughtful, and utterly cohesive. Efira began her career as a comédienne in rom-coms. This led to her first collaboration with Justine Triet, In Bed with Victoria. Since then, she’s played more dramatic roles: as a woman in an on-again-off-again abusive relationship in Un amour impossible or a cop in Night Shift. In Sibyl, she weaves all of these sensibilities into a single performance. Sibyl is hilarious, cringe-worthy, and loveable in her incredibly unloveable bad choices. In other words, she’s a strikingly real woman despite being caught in, and creating for herself, absurd situations.
A reactive rather than active character
Sibyl is, by nature, a reactive rather than an active character. Efira spends much of the film in reaction shots, getting drawn into the drama around her. She’s a psychiatrist in the process of returning to being a writer. Her final patient, an actress, ends up the inspiration for her novel. In an early session with the patient, Sibyl encourages her to talk about her sex life, seemingly to help her. Efira reveals Sibyl’s lurid enjoyment in the way her breath hitches and her face gathers interest. At the same time, she keeps her body tightly controlled and unmoving to maintain the façade. With her other patients, though, she listens with compassion, leaning in, and calmly engaging them. She’s good at her job and yet on the verge of becoming very very bad at her job.
By pursuing her new patient for her novel, Sibyl becomes active. The first time she decides to follow the patient, Sibyl is suddenly fidgeting in her car, in a rainstorm, tightly wound. Eventually, she follows the actress out of the country and onto the set where she’s constantly trailing after her, rushing to keep up. Sibyl is supposedly there to support her patient but completely oversteps as a therapist. Everyone on set tries to get her on Sibyl side: the director, her boyfriend, and his lover who is also Sibyl’s patient. Efira’s face looks as if she’s memorizing the details so that she can put them on the page.
For Sibyl, there’s a fine line between the search for adventure and going off the rails. In flashbacks, Efira portrays a younger Sibyl, engaged in a passionate but problematic affair, prone to drunkenness. Her younger self has no semblance of the persona Sibyl now puts out into the world of outward control. In the present day, Efira presents a woman who is less sloppy, more calm. Yet she’s easily brought into the maelstrom, throwing caution to the wind. After a night of passion, when Efira suddenly became loose and fast-moving, in the morning, she returns to some semblance of stillness, even if she’s trembling. From there, Efira is never fully still again. On set behind director Mika, she shifts from side to side. She’s in constant motion during a public breakdown culminating in a drunken display at a party.
And yet the abandon Sibyl falls into in the film’s final act isn’t the same as what we’ve seen in flashback. After every extreme misstep, Sibyl becomes calm, collected, and regretful the next day, as if aware that she must act like an adult. In the final scene, when Sibyl has an encounter with her past, Efira shows us how easily Sibyl could slip into old habits. She gets nervous and jittery like she has previously before making a bad decision. But here, she stops and extricates herself from the situation before she can get to the regret stage. It’s a fascinating portrait of a woman on the verge, never quite sure if she wants to topple over completely. Finally, she finds freedom in maintaining control of herself.
Sibyl is available on VOD in Canada and the US. It is still seeking distribution in the UK.
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