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, shifting tone from melodrama to thriller to farce and back again, all in tune with its protagonist’s own rollercoaster of emotions. How do you make sense of a character who is an alcoholic who has tried to strictly control her life, gotten bored, 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, creating 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, which led to her first collaboration with Justine Triet, In Bed with Victoria. Since then, she’s taken on more dramatic roles, whether as a woman caught in an on-again-off-again abusive relationship in Un amour impossible or a cop making dubious choices in the thriller Night Shift. In Sibyl, she weaves all of these sensibilities into a single performance to create a character who 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.
Sibyl is, by nature, a reactive rather than an active character, which means 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, and her final patient, an actress, ends up inspiration for her novel. In an early session with the patient, Sibyl encourages her to talk about her sex life, seemingly to help her work through things, but Efira shows Sibyl’s lurid enjoyment of the retelling in the way her breath hitches and her face gathers interest even as she keeps her body tightly controlled and unmoving. With her other patients, though, she listens with compassion, leaning in, calmly engaging them. You can see a woman who’s good at her job and yet on the verge of becoming very very bad at her job.
It’s in Sibyl’s pursuit of her new patient, and the story she hopes it will help her tell, that she becomes most active. The first time she decides to follow the patient, Sibyl is suddenly fidgeting in her car, in a rainstorm, tightly wound, fully of nervous energy. Eventually, she follows the actress out of the country and onto the set where she finds herself constantly trailing after her, rushing to keep up. supposedly there to support her but completely overstepping her bounds. Everyone on set tries to get her on their side: the director, her boyfriend, and his lover who is also Sibyl’s patient. Again, we watch her react, not with an awareness of how bonkers the whole situation is, but intrigued, 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 present day, Efira presents a woman who is less sloppy, more calm, and yet 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, whether shifting from side to side on set behind the director Mika, having a very public breakdown, or eventually getting drunk and making a scene 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. Every extreme misstep is followed by Sibyl calm and collected, regretful, the next day, suddenly forced to behave like a mature adult and rising to the challenge. In the final scene, when Sibyl has an encounter with her past, Efira shows us how easily Sibyl could slip into old habits, getting nervous and jittery like she has in the past before making a bad decision — only here, she stops herself, 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, and finally finding freedom in the 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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